Business Schools

Corporate Ethics Slide Because of Bad Negotiations


If business schools are to graduate leaders who “do no evil,” to paraphrase one of Google’s principles, then we must teach them how to negotiate.

This may seem like an unorthodox approach to minting a new generation of ethically minded managers. The fact is negotiating can be a useful vehicle for doing good deeds. All sorts of negotiations happen on a daily basis, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s a negotiation when we want our idea selected in a staff meeting, when we want to move a project deadline, divvy up team responsibilities, and even decide where to go for lunch.

Unfortunately, we prime our future business leaders to believe that succeeding means choosing a role to play, such as being tough or unemotional, or adopting a conciliatory or meek persona—leaving any personal influences out of the process.

Yet, in more than 15 years of research, teaching MBA students, and coaching thousands of mid- to senior-level executives, I’ve discovered that this type of fragmentation is unhealthy for people and their organizations. When people compartmentalize or wall themselves off when negotiating, they are denying themselves the benefit of their natural skills, strengths, and abilities. What’s more, they can force themselves or others into ethically compromised situations.

Fixing this begins with business schools changing the way they teach negotiating strategy. For years, we’ve given students separate lists of competitive and cooperative strategies to be used in different scenarios, rather than teaching them to take an approach that fuses elements of their personal lives with how they act at work. We’ve done this by exclusively focusing on how to use traditional management tools at hand—say, a win-at-all-costs attitude that encourages resource hoarding to meet a deadline, while sapping important skills needed on other projects. Or squeezing suppliers aggressively on cost, while ignoring signs they may be cutting corners on safety.

Our current approach focuses on external tools or events and ignores something more crucial: the person who is doing the negotiating. Business schools and professors need to help students look inward to see the person they become when they negotiate.

The way to do this is by showing students how to bring to the negotiating process their full selves from the roles they play in life—account manager, mentor, sibling, adventure traveler—along with the associated values, strengths, creativity, and passion.

For example, you might be assertive as a sibling yet meek at the office, or vice versa. Realizing you are still that sibling in every conversation at work may convince you to change how you respond in certain situations, improving your outcomes. It can also be just as helpful to wear “hats” from two different roles at work—such as a mentor and a salesperson—to inspire others and promote an idea at a strategic planning meeting, because it combines personal strengths of compassion with influence. Negotiating and integrating our multiple identities brings additional resources to bear.

The benefits extend beyond the negotiation task. This approach can transform the conversation from “I win, you lose” into more collaborative discussions about how, through combined efforts, people can explore and create better results for all parties. It also helps people form stronger connections and build better relationships with their negotiating partners, because there will be a feeling of trust and respect.

As educators, we have a responsibility to equip our students with insightful ideas and comprehensive strategies. By showing students how to be genuine in the most strategic negotiations at work, we can prepare them to become better leaders.

Kopelman is a leading researcher in the field of negotiations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and author of Negotiating Genuinely: Being Yourself in Business. She will be speaking at the Positive Business Conference on May 15-17.

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