Brexit: Negotiation Disaster


A formidable negotiation challenge with economic consequences now

In order to best understand the whole process Brexit needs to be looked at through the lens of negotiation. This is what drew me into my work at understanding organisations nearly 40 years ago, and was the basis of my successful book, Beyond Negotiation.

When I emigrated to England in 1970 I had recently emerged from the life-changing experience of having become a powerless white man in a new black-run republic, Zambia, where previously I had led the unthinkingly superior existence of a colonial. I was made to realise that I could not always get my own way anymore just because I was white. This is known in Business School jargon as a paradigm shift. Actually it was more like falling off a cliff, scrabbling for handholds all the way down – very, very humbling. Luckily, I had two very wise and kind black colleagues, who showed me the ropes, i.e. how to engage properly with the now empowered black population. I then had the two happiest years of my life in Africa, able to share in the vibrant Zambian social and mining life.   


Our research revealed two very important behaviours that skilled negotiators use that no-one had identified before. The first was to determine the extent of Common Ground, without which the negotiation will not be successful. The second was to be able to disagree on important issues, but never to personally attack the other party. Threats, in particular were a No-No.

When I took the research into the field of industry in 1981 to analyse the economic benefits of win/win negotiations it became clear that there was a correlation with profitability. For example, Xerox in Japan (a country that really understands cooperation) made 7 cents more on each dollar net than Xerox USA (a country that emphasises competition).

Here is the key message: We must build trust, and there is only one way to do so – by negotiating successful implementations step by arduous step – not by clever agreements that turn out to be impossible to implement. Nothing destroys trust as quickly as implementations that fail.

(A negotiation is not a debate – with a winner and a loser, so I suggest we keep Oxbridge- educated politicians out of it.)

Strategically, it is vital to start building trust early. This requires a great planning team to back you up and to identify the Common Ground. Not surprisingly our data showed that 80% of the negotiation failures were a result of poor planning. The best negotiator in the world cannot get a win/win if the planning and preparation is bad. There has not been little evidence of intelligent planning in Brexit so far. That has to be our biggest concern.

Where does that leave the UK with Brexit? I am not optimistic. In the first place, British politicians have a history of poor negotiations. They have two bad habits. The first very bad habit they (and other English people) have is to behave as though they are not taking the other party seriously. The Falklands were as much a result of the Argentinians being offended by the UK not acknowledging their history and taking their claims seriously, as it was by their bellicosity.

The other is taking a win/lose stance from the beginning. This is what Teresa May has already done, saying the EU would find her a “bloody difficult woman”! She has already used threats, i.e. the tit-for-tat of security against economic issues, and treatment of EU nationals in the UK versus the British in Europe. Hopeless, absolutely hopeless! She appears to suffer from an utter lack of (social) imagination. The very thing she fired George Osborn for!

Pity the civil servants who have to unravel this Gordian knot knitted by politicians who demonstrate no understanding of the reality of good negotiations. where the first impulse has always to be to look for Common Ground, which in Brexit is: how do we resolve this huge problem for the UK and EU together? It then becomes a joint problem-solving exercise where everyone must collaborate.

What makes this opening gambit particularly unhelpful is that the UK is in the weakest of weak positions, politically, economically, ethically. We are the ones who have walked away from a union of 27 other neighbours because our previous PM was too incompetent and arrogant to play the long game. It took the USA and Vietnam 5 years to negotiate a peace treaty on just one issue, peaceful co-existence. What will it cost the UK to “demerge” when there are literally hundreds of clauses, and how much uncertainty will that create for businesses and the economy and loss of productivity?

Maybe, as the Quakers would say: “Let us pause for reflection.” – then plan properly for a win/win agreement.

The Management Prison 1

Mad Management: Leaders (not) learning the lessons of history, especially in the Public Sector (original, April 2017)

“Good morning, good morning!” the general said, when we met him last week on the way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack . . .

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.


This was Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter poem about the World War I battle(s) of Arras. By this time 700,000 British men had died: equivalent to wiping out Sheffield and Hathersage. It is the Arras 101st anniversary this month. In fact, the plan was so bad that Sassoon amended the last line to read “But he murdered them both…”

Rightly, we need to remember and honour all those who died; but we also need to understand why they died in such numbers at Arras and how this ultimately led to the defeat of the British at the second battle of the Somme a year later – and to learn some lessons. The Lloyd George government had been steadily draining the fighting men from the front, leaving exhausted veterans of the first battle of the Somme to carry the burden instead of being reinforced. By the end of 1917 the fighting force had decreased by 7 per cent. The infantry alone was 80,000 short, and was projected to be close to half a million short by October 1918. Then came the second battle of the Somme, 100 years ago this year.

Guess what? From March to August that year 544,000 troops were somehow found and sent to France! The war ended in November. By this time 700,000 British men had died: the equivalent of wiping out the populations of Sheffield and Hathersage. Many, many of the deaths were unnecessary, caused by the outdated “plan of attack” and staff incompetence, and by government interference.

Does not this sound like a forerunner of our infamous Austerity policy? Admittedly the horrific scale and utter tragedy of the war bears no comparison, but the dynamics have some real parallels with today, especially in the withholding of resources (Treasury finance) and treatment of much of our workforce in the private sector, and the NHS and Social Care. Note, I am talking of the employees, not the customers or patients. First of all, the Treasury has systematically starved the public services of funding, for no other reason than the Chancellor could. This policy clearly displayed the contempt Osborne holds for the British people, as does Cameron. It is the act of a bully, as befits a Bullingdon alumnus.

We know what the impact has been for Sheffield. David Blunkett, now chair of the Partnership Board said in the Sheffield Telegraph last year that “austerity has dealt a terrible blow to our area”. Too right, and austerity continues to deal terrible blows to the one institution that we are most proud of, the NHS, achieving above average outcomes, with below average funding and below average staff numbers.

It was estimated to require £30 billion by 2020 to meet predicted demand, leaving it £2.45 billion in the red, while record numbers of nurses are leaving and GP practices closing down. There is no valid reason for this. It can only be that government wants it to fail, then, a bit like that doyen of the business world, Sir Philip Green, Jeremy Hunt can sell it for a pound to a USA health company. In the meantime, just like the workers in the gig economy or on zero hours, those in the NHS are increasingly insecure, underpaid and demoralised. And, we are talking about 1.3 million dedicated people.

This is our Somme, with Jeremy Hunt way, way behind the lines plotting the strategy, and, as Siegfried Sassoon wrote: “He did for them (all) with his plan of attack”.

How do the private and educational sectors meet the challenge David Blunkett has laid down, i.e. to regenerate and grow Sheffield? Well, I believe there is a step before we can work together as he urges us to do, and that is first to put our own houses in order. Do we pay our providers and suppliers on time? Have we minimised waste in our production and delivery systems, or are workers constantly having to rework and correct, just the way the government has done on almost every new plan it devised, from IT failures in the NHS, Defence and Welfare to Universal Credit to privatising probation services.

The May Council elections will be an opportunity to remind them. If not then, then do not expect any rise in productivity or increase in cooperation. Herzberg pointed out 60 years ago in his famous study on motivation: if people don’t feel they are paid enough, or are supervised badly or feel insecure then they will underperform. This means that unless these basic conditions, called Hygiene Factors, are fulfilled, you can forget about trying to apply Motivation Factors for productivity.

The second challenge is: To pay our staff enough, and give them some sense of security and belonging. For far too long too many firms have been disloyal to their staff, for example, Sports Direct and the banks. This is an opportunity to change that. I suggest that our universities blaze the trail with no more zero hours contracts.

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