'My Way or the Highway' Is the Wrong Way for TV, Jobs and Football

03/10/2011 10:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Stuart Diamond Professor, The Wharton School; Author, 'Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work & Life'

What do Two and a Half Men, Wisconsin and the NFL have in common? Answer: they are all run by bad negotiators.

Simpler, cheaper and easier solutions exist than the emotional confrontations that have resulted in the firing of actor Charlie Sheen from TVs most popular sitcom, the threat to millions of union jobs or the possible cancellation of the professional football season.

But the CBS producer, the Wisconsin governor and the NFL owners (and their lawyers) clearly don't know how to solve problems in a way that doesn't penalize millions of viewers, workers or fans. Just because the executives are successful in other areas doesn't mean they are any good at this most basic of social functions: human interaction.

I've taught negotiation to 30,000 people in 45 countries over 20 years and written a bestseller, Getting More, on the subject; it is certain from my research and experience that much better answers are available. Often, these answers are not pursued because most of what people have learned about negotiation is wrong and the conventional wisdom falls short. Look around: healthcare, Middle East, finance, everyday life. Lots of bad results from bad interactions.

The mistaken idea is that power, leverage, logic, threats, walking out, conflict and other mainstays of discourse are the best way to deal with others. Mostly they cause resentment and retaliation. But there is a more effective model: finding and valuing the emotions and perceptions of the other party, and dealing more collaboratively with other people, no matter whether they disagree or not.

This model is now accepted by some of the world's leading companies, by employees who use it to get raises, and by parents who get their 4-year-olds to willingly brush their teeth and go to bed. The model was a major factor in solving the Hollywood Writers strike in a few days in 2008, after a year of conflict.

So let's apply it to these three current - and unnecessary - public controversies.

Two and a Half Men:
Charlie Sheen, the lead actor, was fired from the most popular TV sitcom for acting out, in the studio and on the street. Why was he fired? He insulted his boss and made the show's production more difficult by behaving badly and allegedly abusing drugs.

From a negotiation viewpoint, if the show is making tons of money, so what? The goal of the studio, to have a successful hit, was accomplished. The producers could have found a way to keep meeting their goals. Instead, they got emotional, distracting them from their goals, and threw away a lineup worth millions of dollars. What the producers should have said to Sheen was "Charlie, you can say and do anything you want, as long as the show remains successful." To keep their cash cow, the producers should have been more creative in finding solutions to Sheen's problems. The high maintenance should have been framed as an expense of doing business. That's smart negotiating.

Instead of getting lawyers involved, the producers should have gotten a cool-headed third party to handle Sheen, someone Sheen trusts. So what if Sheen is crazy? Lot's of successful artists have had a screw loose. The key is to find the right solutions, not to blame a talented artist with contract violations he can't control by himself. In other words, just because they could fire Sheen, the question is, should they have? Great negotiators don't depend on the other party to find solutions. They find better methods to fix the situation and meet their goals. Instead, the producers threw a great show into the toilet. Bad negotiating.

This is probably the biggest red herring of the year. The governor and his imitators have manufactured an issue. It is not a collective bargaining issue. I am sure there are great collective bargaining agreements in Wisconsin and elsewhere. And there are bad agreements between managers and employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere that did not involve collective bargaining. The type of bargaining is not the problem. The lack of money is the problem. Good negotiators find the real problem.

To solve the problem, one needs to look at value and standards. Are the workers as productive as possible for the total compensation they are paid? This is judged by reasonable standards, or criteria, for the job and location.

It is the manager's responsibility -- the governor and his staff -- to make sure the workers are productive. The executives signed the work contract and rules: to now criticize them is more than a bit hypocritical. If the governor wants more productivity, he should negotiate a better contract and hire better managers. Unions generally have had little problem trading things -- tangible and intangible -- to reach agreements. Smart negotiators know how to trade things that the parties value unequally, like productivity gains for intangible benefits.

Unions often agree to use reasonable standards, or to reduce ranks to more productive levels through attribution in return for job security. Better ideas should be found through brainstorming with the other party. It happens a lot in successful organizations. It's a process that starts with respect, otherwise you have a fight, which doesn't add value. Conflict produces 25% of the value of collaboration. The governor should study the studies. And why isn't the union bringing them up more persuasively?

Here we have a bunch of rich guys rich guys fighting over who gets more money, while blatantly disregarding the fans. Great negotiators have a firm grasp of the obvious. It's obvious that both sides are making a lot of money already, and they will make less money unless they treat each other better and thus save the season.

So, corny as it sounds, both sides need to have a kind of prayer meeting and say to each other that they actually love football and will do everything they can to make sure it goes on every season. Next, the parties should decide on what's "fair," that is, justified by history. If the owners want $1 billion more for "expenses," they should show that expenses have gone up by $1 billion and that there is no way to reduce them. Refusal to allow verification of the NFL's books is extreme behavior and produces mistrust. As an incremental step, a third party could check the owners' claims by reviewing the books.

Third, the players should be thinking about non-monetary items they might want. For example, perhaps the next contract should have a binding arbitration clause that is quick and efficient. As with airports, shutdowns should not be allowed except for public safety.

Communities should have more of a voice in making key decisions, since major league football is successful because of public support and sometimes taxes. Communities should insist that the season be held even if the parties are still negotiating. Fan groups, businesses, community leaders and others should be involved in discussions: it's not just a private affair. Hotheads and threateners should be barred; threats cause emotion and destroy relationships; yet, this entire negotiation is a threat of a lockout. It just produces more animosity and less value.

The solutions to all these are not magic. It begins with a good attitude and not viewing the other side as the enemy. Everyone here has the same goals. We have enough really big problems, from climate to starvation to energy. We should not create more problems from issues that can more easily be solved with better communication and cooperation.