Mad Management: What Theresa May must learn from good businesses about negotiation

Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at Lancaster House in London
Prime Minister Theresa May speaking at Lancaster House in London

Last Wednesday and Thursday I attended two uplifting events. The first was an address by James Wates, chairman of the Wates construction group (one of the largest privately owned in the UK) and the second was sitting on a panel at the Sheffield Business School which was hosting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Roadshow.

Why uplifting? Because I was very sceptical. The theme of the first event was collaboration – hosted by a developer, Argent in London! Don’t make me laugh.

Actually, it was quite wrong from the beginning to call this a negotiation

In 30 years of working in construction the two species who remained unconvinced, baffled even, by the idea of cooperation were developers and banks.

So, while I really wanted to hear James Wates because his firm has a great reputation for community and collaboration, I was on the look-out for contradictions in the elegant conference rooms of Argent.

James’ talk was spot-on, which I expected. But so was Argent. I could not spot any evidence of hypocrisy. None.

In fact, I was most impressed by both the expansiveness of the vision and the positive culture. What a refreshing change.

The next day I sat in Sheffield Business School listening to a UN speaker telling us about the impact of the SDGs. I was hostile. Coming from Africa, I had seen firsthand the tragic mishandling of the Congo crisis in the ’60s and the destructive impact of the IMF and its structural adjustment programmes, which set African economies and public services back decades.

But, once again, I had to change my mind.

The day was well designed and the achievements outlined, while modest, were making a real difference. However, what really delighted me was the address by the industry guest speaker, the Aviva Group Head of Corporate Responsibility, David Schofield.

Apart from Aviva’s application of the UN Goals I found that Aviva also paid everyone at least the citizen’s wage (which I was urging in this column on March 30).

David also strongly commended Aviva’s policy of partnering and cooperation.

So there we have it, two large very successful British organisations whose key relationship value is collaboration – and who deploy it with great success. There are many more businesses that would do the same.

Then, in the most important diplomatic event since Britain negotiated a USA loan of $5 billion following the termination of the Lend Lease agreement with the USA, we have Mrs May posturing as the “bloody difficult woman” who will deal with Jean-Claude Juncker.

She has nothing to negotiate with, so she blusters.

Is this our top politician’s strategy? What a cunning plan, completely fooling the EU into believing we are strong and that they need us; so persuasive that Angela Merkel remarked to the Bundestag that Britain still has illusions that it has the same rights as a full member of the EU. “You may think this is self-evident. But I have to put it so clearly because I get the impression that some in Great Britain (May and Davis) still have illusions, and that’s a waste of time”.

In other words the UK is an inferior in this exchange and we don’t get it. What a put down!

Actually, it was quite wrong from the beginning to call this a negotiation. It is not. People only negotiate when each party need the other party to help them get what they want.

What we needed to have done was to treat this as a problem (caused by a resentful electorate) to be jointly solved. Lay out all the parameters and issues and look for the common ground and then the UK, as the cause of the problem, i.e. an immature election ploy by the hapless Cameron, makes a conciliatory gesture.

In Game Theory this is called “Opening Nice”.

The Open Nice gambit was a clear as a bell: “All EU citizens in the UK are most welcome to stay and should not feel any anxiety – AND I have instructed the Home Office to carry out this policy”.

But no, Theresa May, as one of the most ruthless Home Secretaries, would see this as a sign of weakness.

Of course the Daily Mail would also see it as such and so would give her a bad time; but, as anyone who has ever even glanced at the paper and its ugly step sister the Express would know, it is a bully. And what do bullies know about good relationship strategies?

Now we are stuck with an argument we cannot win. Article 50 has been triggered, positions have been taken and it is 27 against 1, with relations badly damaged.

The PM has now accused EU politicians of meddling in the UK election and trying to wreck Brexit.

Her poodle, Jeremy Hunt has followed suit – illustrating once again his utter absence of any negotiation nous.

Mr Davis is now into conflict management and he will be crushed. There will be no agreement for years.

It might have been so different.

There were a number of options. The first was to say it has been a terrible result and ask how we could handle the consequences together.

The second would be to delay triggering Article 50. The third would be, as Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufkis suggests, to offer the Norway model, to buy some time and rebuild relationships as a member of the European Economic Area.

The fourth option could have been to rope in business, like James Wates and Argent, as advisers on a win/win strategy.

Now there’s an idea!