When I was invited to contribute to this newsletter, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. The concept of Responsible Business and Leadership is so important and relevant, indeed an exciting new way of doing business that respects all stakeholders involved, either individuals, communities or environments. I just couldn’t say no!

Then, after the excitement subsided, I realized that I am not an expert on the topic, so how could I bring some added value to this ongoing debate? I didn’t want to just say some hollow generalities that seem very profound, but in fact, are very shallow and just scratching the surface of the topic. Yep, I was in trouble, should I had refused the invitation?

Suddenly, I understood that I have some areas of expertise that could be useful to the field. I know one thing or two about negotiation, and that can be of use to the field of Responsible Business and Leadership. For me, negotiation is a way to solve problems, where the enemy is not the other party, but the problem we are both facing. And that is exactly the case of Responsible Business and Leadership, we are all in this together, we have a problem to deal with - how to keep living together in this planet without destroying it and us? We need to collaborate, to put our shoulders to the wheel and push to the same direction. But, at the same time, we have also a need to compete for our share of profits, we all need to make a living, to make ends meet. 

In the negotiation field, we’ve been dealing with this tension between cooperation and competition for many years. Already back in 1986, David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius wrote in their seminal book The Manager as Negotiator: Bargaining for Cooperation and Competitive Gain, “Negotiators must learn, in part from each other, what is jointly possible and desirable. To do so requires some degree of cooperation. But, at the same time, they seek to advance their individual interests. This involves some degree of competition. (…) There is a central, inescapable tension between cooperative moves to create value jointly and competitive moves to gain individual advantage.” (p.29) 

As the authors said, this tension will always be there, the goal is not to suppress it for good, but to manage it for better. For instance, how can we manage this tension when we think about the covid vaccines? On one hand, every country wants to vaccinate its people, and the sooner the better. But on the other hand, the covid problem will only be solved when it’s solved for everybody. Hence, we compete and we cooperate, simultaneously, not one or the other. How can we do that? Through the language of negotiation, in a process that takes into account other party’s interests without forgetting our own interests. It’s not easy, but it’s feasible and it’s probably the only way to solve this enormous crisis. In fact, if we just choose to compete maybe will have many vaccines for our people, but then we’ll have to close the country to avoid any virus coming from the outside, which is not realistic. If we just cooperate, other countries will get vaccines, and our country may end up at the end of the queue. We need a third alternative, one that understands that the solution is on the “and”, not on the “or”: we need some degree of cooperation to create a global solution, and some degree of competition to get a fair share of the benefits of that solution. 

In my view, this idea of managing the tension between cooperation and competition, illustrated above by the covid situation, is right on the core of the idea of responsible business, where leaders are focused on joint value creation, both for their companies and for society. It’s a negotiated agenda with all stakeholders, where everybody should first seek to understand, then to be understood (as Stephen Covey once identified as one of the habits of highly effective people), where we respect the other party through listening to their concerns, even (and especially) when we don’t agree with them. This type of problem-focused conversation is crucial for a responsible leader; the point is not who’s right but how do we together solve the problem. Otherwise, we will end up in a sad situation so well characterized by Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

Have a great and impactful week!

João Matos
Invited Professor, Coordinator of the Specialization Program in Negotiation
Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics

This article refers to edition #83 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
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