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Jane Mansbridge: coercion is serious business

Published July 30, 2013

Written by: Kate Vitasek
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Kate Vitasek

Kate Vitasek is an international authority for her award-winning research and Vested business model for highly collaborative relationships. She is the author of six books on the Vested model and a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. She has been lauded by World Trade Magazine as one of the “Fabulous 50+1” most influential people impacting global commerce.  

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What can a professor who teaches democratic theory tell us about collaborative, non-coercive business and outsourcing relationships?

Actually, Jane Mansbridge, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, Harvard Kennedy School, tells us quite a lot. Mansbridge, in three important white papers and articles, “Taking Coercion Seriously,” “Conflict and Self-Interest in Deliberation,” and “What Does the Ideal of Deliberative Democracy Demand?” unveils some vital insights about the best ways to approach deliberations – or negotiations – in the most cooperative and non-coercive manner. While her focus and teaching is on Western democratic deliberations, her ideas also apply, it seems to me, to business negotiations.

For example, she says that a commitment among parties should acknowledge that some degree of self-interest will be present. I agree, it’s naïve to think parties in a negotiation won’t bring their interests to the table; it’s the manner in which those interests are dealt with that is important. While self-interest plays a role, “deliberation should, ideally, be open to all those affected by the decision,” she says. Fairness and equality are key. Hey, it’s OK to bargain!

Mansbridge says:

“The participants should have equal opportunity to influence the process, have equal resources, and be protected by basic rights. In the process of mutual justification, participants should treat one another with mutual respect and equal concern. They should give reasons to one another that they think the others can comprehend and accept. They should aim at finding fair terms of cooperation among free and equal persons. They should speak truthfully. The criterion that most clearly distinguishes deliberative from non-deliberative forms of democratic decision is that in the regulative ideal, coercive power should be absent from the deliberation. Participants should not try to change others’ behavior through the threat of sanction or the use of force.”

Our upcoming book, Getting to We (by Jeanette Nyden, David Frydlinger and myself) embraces these concepts. The book, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August, describes a game-changing negotiation process based on the application of Vested’s what’s-in-it-for-we approach for business and outsource relationships.

The Getting to We mindset has the potential to revolutionise and transform modern contract negotiations – where the relationship itself becomes the focus of the deal. The basic idea is that once parties have gotten to yes in a contract negotiation, some real work and some real tools are needed to forge a lasting, collaborative, shared value partnership. The Getting to We process changes the goal of the negotiation from the deal itself to the relationship. Following the Getting to We negotiation process helps companies change how they view the relationship – helping them embrace Vested’s what’s-in-it-for-we (WIIFWe) mindset. This is done through an approach based on trust and six additional core principles that flow from a commitment to trust: reciprocity, autonomy, honesty, equity, loyalty and integrity.

I believe Mansbridge would agree that there is no room for coercion when developing a shared vision based on following those principles.

In Getting to We, we say companies should apply the guiding principles to all negotiations. The principles will guide parties’ behaviours as they negotiate everything, from the contract to annual reporting metrics or project plans.

This is because the principles drive collaborative behaviours. And it’s equally true for existing relationships and for new ones. Therefore, to ensure a constant state of collaboration each party is responsible for following the principles, constantly. For example, if the parties take seriously the principle of loyalty, they will look out for the interests of the relationship, which means that some very common ways in which companies negotiate become unacceptable.

Coercion is a tactic that violates the principles. Coercion is any threat of penalty that induces one partner to agree in order to avoid unpleasant consequences. Mansbridge says that by responding to the threat, however, the partner is acting against its self-interest.

One way that parties might try to coerce each other is by threatening to leave the relationship: a powerful buyer might coerce a supplier to lower its prices by threatening to switch the work to the supplier’s competitor. This type of coercion is not in the best interest of a collaborative relationship seeking to achieve a shared vision, and it puts the economics of the deal or pending deal out of balance.

But Mansbridge also raises an interesting philosophical counterpoint about coercion and deliberations: “We need coercion in order to make our institutions work. The best kind of coercion is the most legitimate coercion – the efficient kind of coercion and democracy is the best legitimiser we’ve found so far.”

Coercion is a word with bad connotations, but a certain amount of “convincing,” if you will, is often needed in order to move forward – as long as it is not based on muscular self-interest, or power-plays, but rather on a legitimate commitment to move the relationship forward, based on trust and integrity.

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