Negotiation in the Middle East: Confront or Understand?
Thursday January 22nd, 2015
Thursday January 22nd, 2015
Yesterday I was hosting a so called “Peer Lab Session” in Gothenburg. The essence of a Peer Lab session is that professionals bring in cases they have difficulty with at work, and get useful input on how to handle these cases from peers. I facilitate the process, and ensure maximum learning is gained from the sessions.
One person brought in a case about negotiation: a supplier of a big chemical processing plant was not living up to his service commitments. Materials for big machinery had been delivered, but the associated service to install everything was not provided. This situation lasted already for more than a year. This stopped the production lines, and the company was now in a critical situation with it’s end customers, who were waiting for deliveries.
Our analysis was straightforward and our solution consisted of 3 key steps:
This should do the trick.
Only much later we all realized we had been wrong. The supplier was a Middle East company, and the company involved was a Western industrial. We realized that our Western perspective would most likely only make things worse.
The Western style of negotiation is confrontational. There is a dispute (conflicting interests) that needs to be resolved, and the full focus is on the transaction at hand. The written contract for Westerners is the holy grail, detailing out exactly what should and should not be done. And not living up to a contract is unacceptable, and usually leads to disputes in court. An independent party – with the law in hand – decides on a ‘black-and-white’, right-or-wrong’-basis who wins the case, and who loses.
The Middle Eastern perspective however is very different: negotiations are held in the spirit of common interests, looking for proof that the relationship between the parties is solid enough to avoid contracts and legal obligations. A common interest – rather than a dispute – forms the connection between the parties. And a contract is there to underline intentions, while both parties know that if circumstances change, you can call upon the other party for help. In that case the contract is of not much value anymore.
Using this perspective to the above case, we came to three different steps to be taken:
Interesting exercise for me. Reflecting on the case later in the plane, I realized that initially I was very much in the mindset of win-lose. Sue them, enforce living up to the contract and involve the lawyers. This would have resulted however in years of legal fights, a complete escalation of the project and even further reduced trust between the parties.
In this case, it was needed to first step back from the case and look in the mirror: what am I doing that causes the other party to behave the way they do? Then understand the other party: given their culture, why do they act the way they do? And third, deciding on the right course of action (which quite likely is different from what your heart told you to do). This three-step approach is the basis for any intercultural negotiation, as I describe in my book Managing Through a Mirror.
Is this the right approach in this case? I’m confident, but we’ll know the result in a few months only!