Ready? Set? Negotiate!

Two weeks ago, I was among the millions of disappointed, if not outraged fans who watched Monday Night Football. (I told my wife I was “researching” my blog – so I thought I had better follow through by drawing a negotiation lesson from the resulting carnage). For those who did not see the game or any of the subsequent media storm, the game was officiated by replacement officials because the NFL had locked out its regular, experienced referees as a result of a labour dispute. The game was decided on its final play when one of the replacement officials “blew” a call. This was on the heels of several blatant missed calls earlier in the game – and culminated several weeks of poor officiating across the league. The referees (and their lack of experience and knowledge) had become the focal point of many games, at the expense of the football itself. A firestorm of criticism erupted following the Monday night game, including comments from other NFL players, professional athletes from other leagues, celebrities and even Barrack Obama. Late-night talk show hosts had a field day. I remember predicting to my wife (as part of my “research”, remember) that the labour standoff would soon be settled. Fortunately, I was proven right when a marathon bargaining session resulted in an agreement several days after the controversial Monday night game. When the “real” referees appeared at games the following week, they were welcomed by the players and cheered by the fans (at least until they made their first call against the home team).

As this professional sports labour dispute concluded, the National Hockey League, which had locked out its players, announced the cancellation of the start of its regular season. Why did one dispute settle and the other drag on? Readiness. When the cost of failing to reach an agreement outweighs the other options available to someone, they become motivated to negotiate in good faith. In the case of the NFL, the national ridicule created urgency – the league was now ready to negotiate.

Roger Fisher and Bill Ury, in their seminal Getting To Yes coined the terms BATNA and WATNA to assess a party’s motivation to negotiate. BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) refers to the options available to a person if the negotiation falls through. WATNA (Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) refers to the consequences of failing to reach an agreement. The more options someone has away from the negotiating table, the less they need to rely on the other party. The more dire the consequences of failing to reach an agreement, the more reliant they become on the success of the negotiation. These alternatives speak to a negotiator’s power.

In the NFL situation, the referees had few options outside of the negotiation, and appeared to have less power in the negotiation, especially when the league locked them out and hired replacement officials. While this course of action seemed to put the league in the driver’s seat, league officials failed to appreciate the consequences of employing replacement officials – a misjudgement that came back to bite them on that fateful Monday night game. As the consequences of employing replacement referees became less tenable, the league was forced back to the bargaining table and motivated to be more flexible in order to reach agreement.

In the NHL situation, on the other hand, many players have exercised the option of playing in Europe. Accordingly, they are more likely to hold their ground in negotiating a new collective agreement. On the other hand, one would think that the cancellation of the early part of the season and the associated lost revenue would motivate the owners to seek resolution. Ironically, this consequence actually appeals to many owners, as they would lose less money by not playing games (as bizarre as that sounds). One could debate the long-term impact of the stoppage on the league’s “brand”, though the league seems to take the loyalty of its fans (Canadian ones, at least) for granted and assumes they will return once the lockout is lifted.  This analysis can shed some light on why one dispute settled and the other drags on. In the NFL situation, the consequences of poor officiating created a readiness to negotiate: the conflict was “ripe” for resolution. With the NHL and its players, however, the consequences of failing to negotiate a settlement are not significant enough to force either side to exhibit the flexibility necessary for resolution. The parties have not experienced enough pain to “ripen” the negotiation.

Apply this analysis to your own negotiations by balancing the options available to each side with the consequences of failing to reach an accord. By assessing the readiness of each party, you will have a better sense of where to focus your efforts to “ripen” the negotiation and move towards genuine negotiation.

About Gary Harper, The Joy of Conflict Resolution

Gary Harper is the principal of Harper and Associates. He is a trainer, writer and facilitator who specializes in conflict resolution. Through his unique blend of experience as a personal injury lawyer, general manager, insurance regulator and retail store owner, he learned the value of clear communication and conflict resolution skills. Since 1991 he has trained and mediated in a wide variety of organizations - from health care to the film industry to many levels of government. He is a member of the instructional team of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B. C. and recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home.
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