Negotiating with the Devil? Real World Lessons from a Wharton Classroom


Wharton Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and Management Richard Shell recently reviewed Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight by Robert Mnookin, exploring the question of whether it is morally acceptable to negotiate with "Devils" (defined in the book as certifiably "evil" people such as Hitler, terrorists, and racists). This question is extremely relevant to those Shell teaches in Executive Negotiation Workshop: Bargaining for Advantage®. Some of the executives in the program come to Wharton with their own versions of bargaining with the devil, and their stories yield important insights for the others whose negotiations are, in contrast, less extreme.

"A typical discussion at the beginning of the program includes high-risk situations in which people's jobs, or their division's profits, might be on the line," notes Shell. "Then we hear from a Navy Seal whose life has been on the line. United Nations delegates have similar stories. And executives from Russia and Nigeria share their experiences dealing with corruption and bribery and even being kidnapped. Our participants are living with issues of morality in business. There may be a wide range of issues, but they're real, and the discussions are an important part of the program."

He continues, "The implications for these discussions reach far into organizations, whether they’re operating in a war zone or developing economy or not. Most executives can find themselves in difficult negotiations where a moral question is involved."

Shell explains that the injection of morality takes negotiating beyond familiar bargaining theory — the well-known tactics of interest-based negotiations don’t always apply. In his review of Mnookin's book, he advances a framework for thinking about these difficult decisions that he calls Identity-Based Bargaining. "Negotiations that involve ethical considerations must be decided as rationally as possible," Shell says, "but we need to expand the idea of ‘rationality’ beyond the confines of cost-benefit analysis to include reasoned consideration of obligation, duty, and identity.”

Specifically, he proposes some questions for assisting in this “identity-based” decision making:

  1. Is the sense of duty, obligation, or identity on which I am tempted to decide against negotiation a deeply felt, authentic aspect of myself — something connected legitimately to my family, religious faith, country, or other social group?
  2. Does this sense of duty, obligation, or identity stand up to a reasoned challenge to the legitimacy of the social group I feel connected to — i.e., is this social group honorable or is it evil, racist, or dedicated to harming others without justification?
  3. What does a reasoned analysis of the history of my group and its past encounters with situations similar to mine tell me about my duty in this case?
  4. Would my duty, obligation, or identity be compromised simply by speaking with and listening to my adversary — even if I could prevail without any compromises on all material points of our dispute?
  5. Are there any ways for negotiations to take place between third parties that would not, if revealed, compromise my duty, obligation, or identity?

These questions can help you perform a moral inquiry about whether or not to negotiate. Shell emphasizes the complexity of such situations, noting, "Executive Negotiation Workshop doesn't teach you one theory or tactic. Negotiations are as complex as the individuals involved. Whether they're acting on good faith, they're ethically challenged, or even if they're truly evil, it may be your job to engage. You need a range of ways to do that."