This week in my part-time MBA class on Conflict Management and Negotiations we had an in-class presentations for the group negotiation simulation based on Ridgecrest School Dispute case. Essentially, the case is based on the dispute between the Board of Education and the Teachers Association (the teachers union) about the ways of closing the budget shortfall in the school district, while at the same time negotiating the salary increases and other benefits for the teachers. As you can guess, this was a recipe for quite a contentious situation.
The teacher’s assistant for professor sent an email on the day of presentations that the professor was not feeling well, so he would substitute for him for that night.When I read it, it was a bit of a turn off for me because the professor in this class is really highly engaging and rather entertaining. He has made his reputation in the business school and can get away with a lot of things that younger faculty or non-tenured professors would not dare to experiment. In that regard he reminds me a bit of my professor in Entrepreneurship class. He has also been involved in many real engagements as a consultant and has been sharing very interesting and unique first-hand experiences from those engagements.
One thing I did not take into account, that the instructor’s role in this particular class of group presentations was more of a moderator, but the class itself was mostly driven by the presenting students. In fairness, the teacher’s instructor did a fair job as a moderator too.
Anyways, the class turned out to be hilarious, thanks to reflections of some of the groups on how their negotiations had gone. Some of the presenters were quite expressive in describing their side of the negotiation analysis. They mentioned the high tension during their negotiations complete with yelling, name-calling, walk-outs from the negotiation table, objects throwing, “bad cop-good cop” games, and other manipulative techniques they or their counterparts used. Their description of the high explosive negotiations was so colorful that some other groups had to apologize that theirs were more matter-of-factly and routine business.
Another point of bringing up excitement in those presentations was that both groups participating in the negotiation had to present one after another, so it gave a way for many intriguing situations of “we said – they said” and comparisons of the opponents’ interpretations and views on the same situations and flex points in their negotiations.
Our group’s recollection of the negotiations dynamics, by the way, was one of those matter-of-fact. We tried to be more realistic in our approach and focus on how we would do it if it were a real situation, not just a made up classroom exercise with opportunities on show craftsmanship.
There were two lessons I took out from that night. First, the astonishingly broad range of outcomes of the negotiations, even though we were all given the same background information and confidential instructions depending on the role of the group, based on the personalities of the people involved on each side of the negotiation table. The outcomes ranged from complete breakdowns, when the teachers decided on their own or were forced by the Board to go on strike, to a broad range of settlements with various levels of negotiated benefits, where either the Board or the Association had an upper hand in grabbing a significantly bigger part of the pie.
Second lesson was triggered by the question one of my classmates asked everyone at the end of the class. The guy, who was the oldest one in the class, even older than me , asked how many people had had mortgages and were laid off during their career. Needless to say just a few hands went up, less than five out of the class of over 50 students. It should be expected, given the fact that the majority of the class were people under thirty with up to five years of work experience.
The question was probably an expression of frustration born from the fact how easily some groups were firing droves of teachers or stiffing them out of the benefits. This question emphasized the fact that some groups chose more of a playful approach or were quite eager for replacing the objective utility implied in the case with the subjective utility of having an upper hand in the negotiation at any cost, even by destroying the very essence of the purpose of this negotiation. I don’t blame those groups, after all it was just an exercise, but I found it really fascinating.
On the other hand, if those attitudes are not just conditioned by the limitations of the classroom exercise, but actually a reflection of the philosophy that will be extended in the real world, then it is more bothersome.
Then I remembered the national budget deficit and debt ceiling debate that took place in the Congress this past summer and realized that there are a lot of role models professing and practicing this kind of attitudes when the very crucial and real objectives are swept away and sacrificed in the interest of partisan interests and personal agendas to the detriment of the common good.
It makes me wonder how those congressman played their negotiation simulations while still in the classrooms.