How to Negotiate with an Irrational Leader

Screaming BossWe’ve all been there at one time or another – the logical conversation that suddenly turns emotional. The irrational leader’s flame consumes everything in its path, the spoken word oxygen that feeds the fire into a frenzied tempest of damage and destruction. Dramatic enough for you? You get the point. And whether it involves negotiating a raise, a project, what you’re having for dinner, a movie choice or a business relationship, it helps to have a few pointers to help you get through those unexpectedly difficult times.

The Latz Negotiation Institute wrote a piece in December of 2000 entitled, Dealing With the Irrational, Real or Posed, Is Tough. The article argues that one of the most critical (and difficult) pieces to assess is whether the other party is truly irrational or simply trying to appear irrational. So how does one diagnose truth versus fiction?

“First, take a deep breath. This is not your garden-variety negotiation and it will require you to dig deeper than usual into your negotiation toolbox…. Then closely observe and evaluate the sincerity of your counter-party’s allegedly irrational actions. Listen carefully to what that person is telling you – verbally and nonverbally. Are their actions consistently irrational, or is their irrational behavior limited to certain instances or episodic in nature? The more limited and inconsistent the irrational behavior, the more likely it’s a ploy.”

And if they are faking their irrationality?

“Our natural response? Give him whatever he wants. He’s crazy, and he’s got his finger on the nuclear trigger. We can’t take the chance that he’ll push it, so we better concede. [Instead] find an opportunity to openly point out our knowledge of their acting talents. Then treat them like any other rational but tricky negotiation opponent.”

But what if they are truly irrational?

“Explore the reasons underlying their irrational behavior. Find out why they’re so consumed with anger that they can’t listen to reason. Perhaps it’s a personality conflict. Or perhaps an unrelated event has put them into this temporary state of mind… If it’s an emotional outburst or related to a recent traumatic event, take a break. Given sufficient time, individuals often will become more reasoned and reasonable. And if none of this works, re-evaluate your leverage and your alternative to this agreement. How much do you really need or want an agreement with an irrational individual? After all, terminating the negotiation may be your only rational course of action.”

All excellent guidance. Beyond Latz’ advice, look to organizations such as Vantage Partners to help with your most complex, global negotiations. Keep your cool, and let’s keep the conversation going.

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Yelling and screaming is unacceptable, period. Not to mention it is unproductive, especially long term. You don’t want to escalate in the moment, but it is best not to respond other than to diffuse if you can. If someone has an outburst, generally they don’t last long if they are allowed to let that initial energy pop out…let it pass. Explain that you very much want to discuss the issue, that you care, but you cannot do it in this way. Let them know that you need to leave to think about what has been said, and would like to come back, perhaps the next day to continue a more calm discussion. As best you can, avoid summarizing their feelings, or explaning their motivations- you don’t know what you are talking about and are likely to push the button again. As calmly and respectfully as possible, remove yourself and set up a time to meet again, or set up a time to set up a time. If the discussion simply cannot happen professionally despite trying this approach, contact the agency conflict resolution folks, they can work magic. The bottom line, yelling and screaming is unacceptable, unless the screamer percieves a serious safety issue.

Barry Everett

Keep it ‘light and polite’. The over-riding fact that has gotten me through the flames is that
1. Everybody has had bad bosses from time to time.
2. It’s very difficult to get fired, but easy to be miserable.
3. Just say, ‘Yes.’
4. Keep your Grievance Officer’s or Union Rep’s phone number on speed dial, but talk it out before you make that step.
5. The pay’s the same, whether you have a good boss or bad. (Cumbie’s 1st Law of Federal Service)

Most ranters look for buttons to push, fights to start, and simply use irrational behavior as a control. Diffuse, agree to whatever, and shower them with responses, reports, emails, details so minute that they can’t possibly question your hard work. They may transfer you, but someone else will become their target. Any of this sound familiar?