Some of the most important learning I’ve done over the past few years is a principle of collaboration I had long believed in. Its significance was reinforced in an unforgettable fashion when I attended a course on negotiations taught by Peter D. Johnston, Managing Director, NAI Limited.

I was part of a double-blind negotiation exercise wherein two four-member teams competed for points based on the price of a barrel of oil: $10, $20, or $30. Immediately prior to the exercise, a representative from each team was given the opportunity to speak with their counterpart from the other team. Each representative could choose to be truthful or dishonest about his or her team’s economic strategy in the hope of being able to influence the other team’s decisions. At the end of the exercise, it came to light that each team had lied about its intentions, seeking to profit by cornering the market. The most profitable returns came when both teams agreed to price their oil at $30 a barrel. Any less, and losses would be incurred for the other team. If either team lied, the losses would double.

If both teams had used the initial meeting between their representatives to discuss their needs and chosen to collaborate instead of compete, their individual and collective performance would have been far superior. Unsurprisingly, each team also declared it would not trust the other in future negotiations. This exercise was indicative of what happens in the business world with negotiations, and it left me with three main takeaways:

  • We should have an authentic interest in meeting the needs of the other party, who will then be more likely to reciprocate. 
  • Our actions in the present will influence the other party’s future willingness to cooperate and engage in business with us.
  • Occasionally, we are required to make short-term sacrifices to secure long-term gains. This is acceptable only if the costs have been carefully weighed against benefits, and plans have been formulated to address any possible contingencies.
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I had always been familiar with phrases such as “Always put your best foot forward”, and “Don’t burn bridges”. However, the above exercise in negotiations helped me perceive these witticisms in a new light. The attitude we have in negotiations also seeps into the way that we approach leadership, conflict, and difficult conversations. It’s my attitude in these situations that will either make or break my goal to become an effective and inspiring leader through the adoption of a collaborative and empathetic decision-making approach.

This exercise left such a lasting impression on me that I shared it with my family and we coined the phrase, “Play your $30 game”. This phrase is so versatile that we frequently use it during family conversations as a reminder to refrain from hurting each other’s feelings in the midst of passionate discussions. My partner and I use this phrase when we talk about our frustrations at work as it helps us view the situations from entirely different perspectives. The phrase is a constant reminder to me of the importance of being aware of the potential impact of my words and deeds on the people around me, and the fact that I can help achieve the best outcomes possible for all parties involved by fostering an atmosphere of trust and collaboration.