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Racing to Disaster

Stephen White

Bernie Ecclestone's views promoting the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix are quietly spoken, articulate, and morally reprehensible. There will always be a suspicion that his attitude is driven by money. Although the £25 million fee for the right to stage the race has already been paid by Bahrain to F1 and would be forfeit anyway if the race could not take place, the possibility of interminable and expensive legal action following a cancellation, together with the loss of all the ancillary revenue, must somehow be a factor.

But the central plank of his current pronouncement focuses on other issues. On the one hand that F1 is a sport and should have nothing to do with politics, but at the same time that different countries have different standards (in terms of China's and Bahrain's human rights standards, for example,) and visitors must modify their own standards as a result.

This is a view he should be ashamed of. Imagine that the venue was Damascus, rather than Manama. Imagine even that there was a secure compound inside which the race track lay, and that safety was not an issue. Would the Ecclestone philosophy still hold?

In 1936 the Austrian National Women's Swimming Team mainly comprised members of the Vienna Maccabi Swimming Club, a Jewish sports club (formed because the Jewish members were blacklisted from belonging to gentile swimming clubs). Several refused to swim for their country at the Olympic Games in Berlin because they objected to the way Jews were being treated in Germany. They were stripped of their status and their national medals by the Austrian authorities, who did not apologise for this appalling behaviour until 1995.

Of course there are matters of relativity, and there has to be a pragmatic acceptance that we cannot protest every infraction everywhere, but the sustainable moral line is that we are true to our own beliefs, and that we do not allow our beliefs to be manipulated by the behaviour of others.

So we should be with our negotiating partners. There is a school of negotiating thought which suggests that negotiators whose stance is based on concepts like fairness and Win/Win end up with poor deals in the face of an amoral manipulative negotiating opponent. Their behaviour is 'soft' and needs toughening up. The solution, according to this school of thought, is that to behave responsively (aggressively) in ways which are unnatural, and which would be judged reprehensible in others; fight fire with fire. The theory is that this teaches the counterparty that their manipulation isn't working, and moves them to take a more cooperative stance.

The real world suggests a different outcome. Has the Syrian government become more amenable in the face of 'fire with fire' tactics from the opposition? Have Tesco's aggressive procurement practices been modified by the increasingly aggressive responsive behaviour by their suppliers? On the contrary; their response is either more of the same, or to look for even more devious, cleverer, opportunities to manipulate. This is ultimately disastrous and counter productive; regime change in Syria is only a matter of time, and Tesco's stalled performance in recent months, compared for example with Waitrose, is in part a reflection of the store wars that have been raging for several years between some retailers and their suppliers.

The best negotiators universally display two traits. Firstly, they learn and practice the skills which will give them self control and power in negotiating situations. Secondly, they never behave in a way contrary to their moral values. Being true to one's beliefs is not a matter of naivety; it gives strength to persuasion, encourages creativity in trading, and conviction when implementing a walk-away stance.

Stephen White

Stephen White
More by Stephen White:
Know Your Enemy
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