From the UK’s acrimonious divorce from the EU, to the US-China trade war and now Covid-19 “vaccine nationalism”, recent high-stakes deals have brought the importance of dispute resolution skills in business and broader society into sharp focus. That both sides in the Sino-US skirmish remain at loggerheads on many issues after years of complex negotiations raises broader questions over whether enough people in business and beyond have the right skills and expertise to get deals done.
The ability to resolve disputes has always been vital in the corporate world, but executive education courses in negotiation are gaining popularity among the next generation of leaders. A survey of 800 would-be business students found negotiation was the fourth most popular choice of subject options, up from sixth two years ago, according to the poll by education consultancy Carrington Crisp for its annual Tomorrow’s MBA survey.
[See the Top 10 Executive Courses in Negotiation]
“Even as the pandemic negatively impacts higher education, we have seen our numbers grow dramatically compared to last year,” says Horacio Falcao, director of the Negotiation Dynamics executive education program at INSEAD in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. It is one of a number of executive education courses in negotiation that are finding fresh relevance and importance in the current business and political climate.
Falcao says he’s getting questions about Brexit, trade wars and COVID-19 vaccines from participants who want to acquire the competencies to improve the negotiations they encounter daily in their jobs.
Negotiation is an often undervalued yet fundamental skill, says the INSEAD professor of management practice. He highlights the real-world value of dispute resolution, from negotiating the price of financial assets to persuading suppliers to make components. “In sum, just about everything in business stems from negotiation to generate bottom line results,” he points out.
Likewise, Professor Steve Blader at NYU Stern School of Business in New York City agrees that negotiation skills are essential in every industry and across all levels of an organization, especially decisions that require buy-in from multiple stakeholders with different perspectives and goals. “Ultimately, negotiations determine whether the full potential of a product, idea, service, or employee is realized,” he says.
Blader, who trained in social psychology before joining NYU Stern in 2010, now teaches the business school’s Negotiation Strategies: Optimizing Outcomes through Collaboration and Conflict Resolution program.
Learning negotiation ‘hacks’
So, what is good negotiation? And how do you teach it to executive education students?
More than anything, a successful negotiation is one in which as much information as possible is surfaced and leveraged to reach agreements, says Blader. “Good negotiation is about the process of building trust. And while the parties may be at odds on the issues under discussion, they shouldn’t be at odds with each other,” he adds.
“Some individuals focus on negotiation as being all about competition and dominance, as a battle of wills,” he says. “But that’s a narrow and simplistic approach.”
Holly Shroth, who teaches the Negotiation and Influence course at Berkeley Haas in California, agrees that “good negotiations exist when both parties are satisfied with the result and have a good relationship moving forward”.
“The definition of negotiations is sharing information in order to problem solve and create mutually beneficial solutions,” she says, adding that it’s also about interacting effectively with others.
Likewise, Leigh Thompson, professor at Kellogg School of Management in Illinois, highlights the importance of finding the “sweet spot” in contentious situations, preserving relationships in personal and workplace conflicts, diffusing emotional situations and rebuilding trust.
“I frequently hear the common misconception that win-win means 'even-Steven' or 'taking one for the team',” she says. “I believe there are hacks or tips to help negotiators find the 'sweet spot' that can measurably enhance relational and economic value for everyone.”
Good negotiators also know when to walk away, adds Thompson, who runs the High-Performance Negotiation Skills program at Kellogg.
How negotiation is taught in executive education courses
Academics agree that negotiation is best taught through role play exercises and getting feedback on the process and outcome. At INSEAD, Falcao starts by covering the foundations of negotiation, business and relationships, and how these factors all interact in everyday life.
“It helps to prepare each individual to learn from a fresh and pragmatic perspective, beyond tips and tricks, to diagnose and implement negotiation strategies with confidence and sophistication,” he says.
He combines lectures, stories, video analysis, role-play simulations and peer feedback to teach participants how to negotiate in INSEAD’s course.
It’s a similar story over at NYU Stern, where Blader has found the key to teaching negotiation is to challenge participants’ preconceived notions, which can run deep in their implicit beliefs.
“The most effective way to surface and challenge these notions is to create in-class experiences,” he says.
His next step is to get students to critically reflect on their habitual mindsets and to realize how unproductive and dysfunctional these default tendencies can be, according to Blader. “Once this process has unfolded, students are much more likely to understand and master new approaches and tactics,” he says.