The Unnecessary Shutdown

04/11/2011 10:56 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011
  • Stuart Diamond Professor, The Wharton School; Author, 'Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work & Life'

The near-shutdown of the Federal government last week resulted from poor negotiation processes by officials from both sides when better options were available.

It is a continuation of the kinds of unskilled techniques evident in recent controversies such as collective bargaining in Wisconsin, the National Football League and even actor Charlie Sheen and Two-And-A-Half Men. Instead of a painful and unnecessary game of chicken, the participants could have used more collaborative and successful techniques that would have solved problems more quickly and easily.

It was not necessary to shut down the government over a dispute involving less than one percent of the budget. The $38 billion or so in controversy in a $3.5 trillion budget could have simply been split off. The rest of the budget could have been approved and the disputed sliver could have been negotiated in the current weeks. Instead, what was done was to be extreme in the way that unskilled negotiators often act. Incremental action reflects more skill.

The two parties worried about the loss of "leverage" with each other by giving in. However, if both sides postponed the debate on the sliver, there would have been no loss of leverage. In fact, either side could simply have said, "It takes a strong person not to victimize the innocent." That is, the 800,000 government workers, as well as the military, who would not have received paychecks.

Delaying the negotiation of the $38 billion -- the less than one percent -- would have produced better ideas. Studies show that the closer one gets to a deadline, the less creative the parties, the worse the information processing, the more emotion and the more stereotyping of the other side. The Democrats and Republicans splitting things down the middle are an uncreative way to solve problems by people paid by the voters to be smarter.

To provide an incentive for lawmakers not to drag things on, the most honorable among them could have issued a pledge not to be paid until an agreement was reached. Voters would then have seen who was responsive to voters and who was not.

The process of collaboration produces four times as much value as a negotiation marred by conflict: twice as many deals, and twice as much from each deal, according to research. The voters should take note of those demonizing the other side and thus creating conflict. Voters should consider not returning them to office, whether Democrats or Republicans. The failure of elected officials to collaborate for better solutions costs voters dearly and sets a poor example for the nation and the world.

Standards and trading items of unequal value, two staples of effective negotiation, could easily be used by parties bent on collaborating. What is the fairest standard? What can we trade off? But the process must begin with an appreciation and respect of the perceptions of the other side. Otherwise, talk of "civility" is just hot air, and neither side will be able to effectively negotiate. In a world already mired in conflicts, U.S. leaders should not be adding to it by threatening to shut down the government because they are not skilled enough to solve their own problems.

Finally, it is of interest that the mainstream media did not find and publicize experts who could have pointed to a better way. The media just covered the conflict like they always do, but without the public service efforts they claim they make in major issues. It appears that the media need more skills in negotiation too.