The publication of Peter Mandelson’s memoirs of New Labour, “The Third Man” gives a fascinating insight into the mind of a great negotiator. It also reveals that even this master negotiator has some weak spots.
Peter Mandelson has successfully negotiated his way through more than a dozen years of Labour being in power, displaying enormous deal-making skills.
The perfect negotiator has all the possible negotiation behaviours at his finger tips. He can push for things when he needs to, using behaviour such as creating incentives or pressures for people to comply with his wishes, or making proposals with reasons to back them up. Sound familiar? He can also work off the other side’s agenda – actively listening, focusing on common ground and disclosing information or feelings to put people at their ease. Peter Mandelson has been able to display all of these behaviours too – particularly during his most recent stint in office, when he has been a paragon of easy-listening charm.
Great negotiators also have an instinctive grasp of negotiating process. They understand the value of planning – and Peter Mandelson has always appeared to plan all the way to the end. They know when to explore and how to identify and then exploit the other side’s needs. They know when and how to bid, bargain and close their deals.
Great negotiators also know the difference between “winning” and “losing”, and that “retreating” is not the same as losing. On both occasions when Mandelson has had to leave Ministerial office he has done so without fuss, knowing that his time would come again, and, on the occasion of his second resignation, knowing that a juicy EU Commissioner’s job lay just around the corner.
Master negotiators are also supreme at marshalling their own bargaining power so as to take advantage of the aces in their hand. Peter Mandelson has in particular managed his “network power” brilliantly. Nowhere is this more apparant than in his extraordinary ability to be both Tony Blair’s and then Gordon Brown’s trusted right hand. Sworn enemies they may both have been, yet each of them trusted Mandelson to “deliver” the rest of the party for them.
So, are there any chinks in the armour of this uber-negotiator? Maybe. First of all, effective negotiators tend to play win/win. Does Mr Mandelson do this, or is there a touch of win/lose in his approach, where a win for himself is much more important than a win for the other side? One of his great talents is an ability to not quite commit hemself wholly to anybody – this is one of the attributes that creates his network power. Yet, paradoxically, this virtue can be something of a vice if done to excess, as it can make someone seem as though they lack integrity. Being seen as having integrity is a key requirement for the consumate negotiator, and lacking such integrity is usually seen as a negative, win/lose behaviour. This win/lose attitude and unwillingness to commit may be corroborated by Mandelson’s candid admission in his book that everything New Labour ever published was about winning votes, regardless of whether it was right or wrong.
In addition, great negotiators know how to manage their own underlying needs so that they don’t give away too much in return for getting those needs met. Looking at the enormous number of rather impressive titles that Peter Mandelson has acquired duiring his most recent period in office (including Lord President of the Council and First Secretary of State), one could speculate that this is a politician with high esteem needs. Commentators have certainly noticed just how many photos of Mandelson with celebrities adorn the pages of “The Third Man” – and even the book’s title seems to demand equal billing for Peter Mandelson with Blair and Brown. This kind of limelight-seeking would not make him unusual among politicians, but if other people are aware of it, it may make it easier for them to get what they want off Mandelson. Perhaps Gordon Brown sensed that, and offering a spectacular package of power and titles was one way that he managed to persuade Mandelson to come back to office at his right-hand – a move that seemed impossible until it actually happened.
So, maybe Mandelson isn’t perfect. Then again, the perfect negotiator doesn’t really exist – we all have some things we could work on and even a great and clever negotiator like Peter Mandelson is no exception…