The Biggest Negotiation Failures in History


History, of course, happens because of successful and unsuccessful negotiations.  We could fill the entire Internet with examples, but we’re going to practice some self-control and only showcase a couple. 



Probably the most famous example from contemporary times involves the volatile relationship between Israel and Palestine.  Stemming directly from the former nation’s official establishment in 1948, every attempt to forge sustainable peace ends in an act of violence, particularly when it comes to ownership of the Gaza Strip.  Admittedly, this is a painfully reductive summation of one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most complex geopolitical games.  But it still stands as a harrowing example of failed negotiating – repeatedly.

Starting in the 1970s with the Rogers Plan, various nations have intervened and attempted to encourage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to maintain stability and harmony in the region.  Each effort eventually dissolved into the killing of innocent civilians.  Once again, from the broadest possible angle, this pattern occurs because both sides stubbornly adhere to their own personal agendas.  And, of course, refuse to extend anything beyond lip service to understanding the cultural, political and economic perspectives of the opposition.

This shortsightedness and unwillingness to practice the communication, compromise and compassion necessary for mutually assured construction obviously forms one extreme end of the negotiation-failure spectrum.  Now, falling short of negotiating in the boardroom more than likely won’t result in the brutal maiming and deaths of innocent civilians.  As with all things, though, the macro provides lessons applicable to the micro.

Israeli and Palestinian governing bodies both refuse to come to terms with the others’ views and establish common ground on which to build everlasting peace.  In the end, compromise doesn’t always mean everyone receives everything they want, but they don’t have to give it all up for the sake of the other parties involved.  Making a genuine effort to start from a solid foundation of similarities, listening with empathy and working upwards is essential to a gratifying, viable and successful agreement.

Sometimes though, negotiations fail in spite of at least one participant’s earnestness and willingness to give, take and listen.  All it takes for an arrangement to fail is someone dishonoring everything and breaking through to exert their own wants.  To pull from a popular cliché, you just can’t control everything.  For example, professional hostage negotiators could not quell the horrifying massacres in Munich and Beslan.  Even though their training requires extensive listening and meeting the demands of hostage takers in the safest, most reasonable manner possible, many situations do not end with the criminals surrendering their prisoners.

This doesn’t necessarily render the negotiators ineffectual at their jobs – far from it.  It means that reality doesn’t always reward the ones doing the right thing.  While this is certainly unfortunate, it is inevitable.  You spend enough time negotiating, the odds of both success and failure increase.  If you sincerely tried and everything fell apart anyway, then avoid clinging to the guilt.  However, if you didn’t sincerely try, then cycle back to the previous paragraph and learn a few things about where you may have veered off course.

Negotiations in the business world almost always carry with them considerably lower stakes than those involving the immediate threat of violence.  Usually it means losing out on beaucoup coinage, like the aborted merger between MCI WorldCom and Sprint, whose $115 billion price tag would’ve wound up being the biggest merger in American history.  But lawmakers in the United States and Europe nixed the deal because of concerns regarding a telecom monopoly.  This inspired posters and JPEGs on our Facebook news feed telling us to dream big while spreading our wings and reaching for the stars because the sky is the limit and the sky doesn’t know diddly-squat about negotiations.

Ambition is a great thing.  It constantly challenges us and allows us to accomplish our goals.  But ambition requires generous tempering with reality.  Like MCI WorldCom and Sprint, it might come to pass that external factors and regulations prevent negotiations from moving forward, even if both parties find the terms more than satisfactory.  Try to form some contingency plans to address any possible factors that may compromise success.  Even if they fail to work, keeping them on hand could mean the difference between clinching an epic deal and winding up discovering that the United States and Europe think you run the risk of becoming the Dr. Doom of telecommunications.

Without thinking and analyzing all the involved elements ahead of time, you may wind up embroiled in a PR nightmare like Penguin, which currently has to sue many of its own writers because of breached contracts.  Most of these lawsuits involved advances in the $10,000 to $81,000 range, distributed to authors – like Prozac Nation bestseller Elizabeth Wurtzel – who failed to deliver a manuscript within the agreed-upon time frame.  And Herman Rosenblat handed over a Holocaust memoir that didn’t actually happen.  Such public falling-outs draw criticism and create controversies that terrify other authors from submitting their stories.  Initial negotiations really should’ve come with a built-in penalty for reneging on the deadline.  Then as issues arose, Penguin’s contracts would be enforced and take care of the issue without a giant public brouhaha.

Think, think and think when handling initial negotiations.

Reprinted by permission.


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