Lately the inspiration for these blog articles has come from situations arising from behavior exhibited in classroom exercises or discussions that followed and this one is no different. In another article on this blog I have discussed the Attica prison riot from a negotiation perspective and use it as an exercise (The Big House Case) in The Smart Negotiator!® course. Frequently, for the team representing the State of New York, it is common to hear participants say “we need to be careful not to set a precedent.” Intellectually, I understand what they are saying but in reality what does it mean and how does it affect the outcome?
Wikipedia defines precedent as “establishing a usage, tradition or standard to be followed in the future.” Unfortunately for some negotiators this definition of precedent conveniently translates into “nothing should ever be done for the first time.” Therefore, the word precedent frequently becomes an acceptable rationale not to negotiate. Psychologically, the status quo is a more comfortable place to land no matter how defective it is. Any change to previous decisions or agreements that might resolve the dispute increases the amount of tension and responsibility for the current negotiator. In this particular case, the idea of setting a precedent becomes a self-imposed priority by the negotiators that clouds their vision while diverting their attention from the prize which is creating a quality agreement. Moreover, this type of thinking transfers the responsibility for the outcome of the negotiation to those who preceded them.
What is even more intriguing about the exercise on Attica, is the participants are aware that during November of 1970 at New York’s Auburn State Prison prior to the Attica riot, a request to host a Black Solidarity Day was denied. As a result the inmates staged a protest and eventually took 30 guards hostage. The State negotiated a deal with the inmates to release the hostages unharmed. In exchange the State agreed that there would not be any administrative and/or physical reprisals. As per the agreement, the hostages were released unharmed. However, the State retaliated breaching their part of the agreement by administering physical punishment to the inmates and transferring others to Attica. Did the State set a precedent prior to the Attica riot with this behavior? Was the dye for Attica cast a year earlier at Auburn? The answer would have to be a resounding yes if the negotiators representing the State in the Attica exercise did not want to set a precedent.
In closing, I would like to leave the reader with a final thought. During my tenure as a training professional, I have discovered that in a corporate training environment the participants are very intellectual and say all of the right things. In open discussion participants pay homage to words like inclusiveness, diversity, integrity, relationship building and Ethics as if they are meaningful. However, as an instructor I can’t make the mistake to assume this is the way they act when placed in real-life situations that require them to follow these articulated principles. Too often I have witnessed well-educated professional people when placed in a real-life scenario like the Attica case exhibit a complete breach of professional discipline. It is very disappointing to discover when “the money is on the table” they are more likely to follow their most primitive instincts employing the use of power and threats to shape a deal. Unfortunately, by proclaiming ” we need to be careful not to set a precedent” they are afforded this opportunity.