thatcher-negotiation-negotiator-howeThe death of Baroness Thatcher has prompted a review of her negotiating style. She was widely regarded as being combative, stubborn, uncompromising – a real “Iron Lady”.

Some commentators have described this kind of approach as a great strength which helped make Britain respected on the world stage. Others have said that this “precipice” style of negotiation was her Achilles heel and led to her downfall.

So who is right? Certainly I believe that a collaborative style of negotiation is generally appropriate for a modern inter-dependent world. However, I also believe that it’s right to stand up to tough guys who try to push you around – if you don’t make their behaviour the issue then they will keep pushing you. The real skill as a negotiator is to have the judgement to know when to push tough guys back, and when to collaborate.

Viewed in this context it is a bit easier to evaluate Baroness Thatcher’s approach. There is no doubt that she knew when to stand up to tough guys – whether that was the Argentinian Junta invading the Falklands, EU commissioners or other EU leaders trying to rail-road Britain into unfavourable agreements, or bellicose Union leaders like Arthur Scargill. Standing up to these individuals ultimately made them back off and earned Mrs Thatcher many plaudits.

However, you need more than one gear to drive with when you are a negotiator. Not everybody who has a different point of view to you is a tough guy who needs to know that you will not blink. Often if people genuinely disagree with you that is a signal for a co-operative negotiation approach which can enable everyone to get more of what they want, rather than an attritional approach to prove that you are right.

Margaret ThatcherIf there is a criticism of Baroness Thatcher it would be that she seemed to bring the same uncompromising approach to every negotiation. The same steely resolve which was her strength in arguments with Argentina or militant trade unionists was her undoing in negotiations with the electorate over the hated poll tax, and negotiations with members of her own government and party. If you always adopt an unyielding approach whatever the situation, then ultimately you will be seen as a “tough guy” yourself. This will mean that some people with whom you might have been able to work out a negotiated agreement will walk away from you or resent the outcomes you impose on them and work against you.

Baroness Thatcher aroused both these reactions. Ultimately they cost her the leadership of her party and the country, despite her unprecedented success in winning elections. The subsequent chaos in the Conservative party led directly to John Major’s defeat after one term, a Labour landslide, and the equally long tenure of Tony Blair.

Nobody can belittle the achievements and strengths of a person who battled to become Britain’s first and – so far- only Female Prime Minister. But perhaps it is fair to say that like most “brinkmanship negotiators”, she relied too much on the other side backing off.

In the car game of “chicken” two cars hurtle towards each other at great speed and the winner is the one who refuses to yield the road and forces the other car to swerve. That’s fine of course, as long as you can assume that the other driver will always make that decision. If the other car driver decides it’s time to stand up to you, then you are in trouble. Great negotiators have the judgement to know when to stand strong and when to bend a little, to avoid negotiations ending in a car crash.