Our forefathers invested considerable effort constructing an economy – indeed a world – that aspires to predictability. Rule of Law, property rights, a man’s word is his bond, and all that. Is it possible in this new century that introducing a flourish of the unpredictable – as President Trump plans to do on our behalf - can augment negotiating success, either on the global stage or in your own personal dealings? Probably not.
President Trump has promised to bring a businessman’s acumen to negotiating globally on behalf of the American people. In particular he has emphasized one key innovation he plans to introduce: Unpredictability. Leaving aside the question of whether in announcing your intention to be unpredictable you can actually be unpredictable, let’s just note that such an approach would run pretty much counter to the fundamental emphasis on stability, cooperation and development that has been the hallmark of American foreign policy negotiation in the post-World War Two era. After all, consider the acronym for our nuclear policy vis-à-vis the Soviets: MAD. Right there, right in the middle, it includes the word “Assured.” If you shoot something at us, we’ll shoot something back at you. Count on it. Predictable.
So if the foundation of our negotiating style in the American Century was predictability, is it possible that being unpredictable could have its uses in a freshly globalized 21st century? Is it a tool for us to claw back some of what we conceded away over the last 75 years as we put the world back on its footing, served as its policeman, defended liberty and stuff like that? And what about us as ordinary folk? If it’s a technique useful on the grand scale, maybe it could serve as a potent addition to our own negotiating toolsets. Let us consider then, when, if ever, you might benefit from being less predictable in your own personal and professional dealings.
We start by considering “negotiation by other means”- that is, war...
This type of what we might call Randomly Unpredictable Behavior (RUB?), is what the President seemed to be asserting when, early in his administration, he unilaterally contacted the Taiwan government outside the usual complex diplomatic channels and without first paying his obeisances to mainland officialdom. Since keeping the China / Taiwan dynamic on low simmer has been seen to be in everyone’s interest for a long time, it was a bold and unexpected move. For a short while it raised both eyebrows and hackles. But there was no next move made, and worse, no apparent advantage to be had. The Chinese, for their part, did little, waited. After a short while, the President retreated back into established diplomatic mores, with nothing gained, nothing changed. In the end, since there seemed to have been no strategy underneath, no way for this brave thrust to render a pay-off, the net effect was to tarnish his credibility and leave the Chinese looking on in bemusement .
So, the first issue we need to be aware of in deploying tools like unpredictability in our own dealings: tactics decoupled from strategy founder (as in “sink to the bottom.”). The key thing about strategy is, it’s hard. And there’s a reason for that: most of the easy good ideas have been thought up already. Innovating takes work. Under-considered breaks from standard behavior will generally be less efficient; standard behavior becomes standardized for a reason. Unpredictability will look exactly like ingenious strategy - in that both are unexpected - but only for a very short while. If no path to payoff becomes apparent, you risk just looking dumb.
But let’s be fair to the President. Sometimes the stuff you try in negotiation just doesn’t fly, especially your high risk gambits. Negotiation exists because there are unknowns in any relationship. Not working doesn't mean it wasn't a nice try. So when might non-strategic Randomly Unpredictable Behavior be an efficient negotiating tool? I can think of two potential workable contexts. The first is when your unpredictability induces in me what we’ll call Short-Term Hair-On-Fire Panic-Driven Uncle-Crying. The second is a longer-term approach, which gets the seal of approval from Richard Nixon (!), and which we’ll term Studied Pre-Emptive Bait-Cutting.
We’ll consider the first using, as an example, a game of poker. Let’s say that after a spate of competent play, clever you, you choose to throw a couple hands in order to try to send other players off the scent of your overall logic. Could work. It is possible they could become so overwhelmingly concerned that your incomprehensible choices betoken a ploy so formidably ingenious that their best and only hope is to bail out with alacrity. That is, they Cry Uncle. But how likely is this? Poker, like most negotiated relationships, like life, is iterative; it goes on for several rounds. If the people you're playing with have been around for awhile, rather than fleeing the room with their Hair on Fire, they’ll probably just keep their cards close to their chest, their powder dry, and play on. If you then return to being sensible, comprehensible, to an experienced player your Randomly Unpredictable Behavior may come to look like Intermittently Poor Play. They’ll start looking forward to making money off it happening again.
According we can conclude that Randomly Unpredictable Behavior in negotiation is likely to render immediate payoff only against the inexperienced or the timorous. This would, therefore, seem to present little value, since it's the experienced and capable who have most of the good stuff. There's generally a correlation between those who hold their own in negotiation and those who can execute in life. And, generally, these are the folks you want to be associated with to get ahead.
If at this point you’re having trouble figuring out just when unpredictability might be useful in your own negotiations, that may be for the good. In business, in this country, we occasionally like to separate out the negotiating process as a kind of free-for-all phase played out in between the opening sales romance and the actual deliverables. This can present what is for some people a giddy opportunity to play hardball, maybe skirt the edges of one’s own values, perhaps even toy with fun tools like unpredictability. The problem is, negotiation is not a safe space for just any kind of gamesmanship. If you’re willing to be unpredictable and unreasoning in the middle of a tough negotiation - one in which we each have invested time and high hopes - do you really expect me not to anticipate you'll be a questionable partner as our relationship plays itself out?
Representing your interests firmly is good. However frustrating and even time-consuming I - the person across the table from you - may find that to be in mid-negotiation, it is ultimately useful and even admirable. It forces me to respect you, and can even streamline future negotiations as I come to realize there's no profit in trying to push you around. But tactical toughness without strategic savvy is not a recipe for negotiation success. And when it comes to tools like unpredictability, sometimes being odd is just…odd.
In the next installment we’ll explore the one context in which unpredictability might render you a better deal. But you’d better be a big shot.
Coming next, Part 2: The President Tweaks the Australians