Remember the classic television show “Columbo?”
In it, Detective Frank Columbo was a bumbling detective who investigated high-profile murders. Huge egos surrounded him. Often, wealthy businessmen or politicians would be under suspicion, and eager prosecutors would badger Columbo for results. Invariably, seemingly minor clues just didn’t add up.
So what did Columbo do? Gathered information by asking questions. And everyone answered them. Why? Because Columbo never appeared threatening. In fact, suspects viewed him as slightly dimwitted.
Of course, he was quite clever. Every question he asked had a purpose. And he analyzed every response — and nonresponse. Eventually, he maneuvered suspects into giving away information they didn’t really want to — and that’s when Columbo put the pieces of the puzzle together and pounced.
Columbo’s negotiation brilliance lay in using his counterparts’ egos against them. Because the arrogant suspects rarely viewed Columbo as a credible threat, they more readily shared information. They came to regret their loose lips.
Egos play a significant role in the information-gathering stage of many negotiations. Some people love to hear themselves talk, and so give away crucial information. Others consciously set aside their egos, and gather the information power effectively and efficiently.
“Wait a second,” you might say. “Columbo’s counterparts’ egos were an important part of his strategy. But so was his bumbling idiot act. Are you recommending we play dumb just to get information?”
No, I am not. One, I consider “playing dumb” unethical as it involves presenting an admittedly false picture of yourself. And two, practically speaking, you likely will be found out later in the negotiation.
When this occurs, your lost credibility will cost you dearly as will the destruction of any trust built up between the parties. It may even destroy the deal.
I should point out, however, others disagree. Roger Dawson, author of “The Secrets of Power Negotiating,” recommends Columbo’s technique, writing that “acting dumb is smart.”
My overall point? Understand ego’s role in the beginning of most negotiations.
Ego also can be quite detrimental at the close of many negotiations. How? By undermining parties’ rational decision-making and causing parties to ignore strategically solid agreements.
It’s amazing how many deals go south due to egos alone. Watch otherwise rational individuals throw leverage out the window. Or ignore their carefully selected independent standards and even their offer and concession strategies.
Why does this happen? Because some people can’t stand the perception that someone else beat them. Their goal is more to “win” than to reach an agreement that satisfies their interests.
In 1973, ABC paid $3.3 million to show the movie “The Poseidon Adventure.” The highest amount previously paid for a similar showing was $2 million for “Patton.” This $3.3 million payment was so outrageous ABC expected to lose $1 million on it.
How did this happen? According to Robert Cialdini in his classic book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” the need to win in an open-bid auction for a scarce resource played a large role in this costly decision.
So how can you counter the detrimental impact of your ego — or take advantage of your counterpart’s ego?
One, be consciously aware of ego’s impact on the information-gathering stage of negotiations. Then tuck your ego in your pocket and start asking questions and getting the other side talking.
Two, take a step back near the close of the negotiation and make sure the last offer on the table is better than your best likely alternative. If it’s better, grab it. But if that offer appears worse than your best alternative, i.e., you would lose money if you accepted it, take a walk. Your ego may have inadvertently made an appearance.
Finally, listen carefully to your counterparts and take note if they appear highly competitive or talk openly about “winning” and “losing.” If these occur, keep a close eye on the egos involved.
Let’s face it — everyone has an ego. The critical question here, though, relates to a) its size, b) its visibility to others, and c) its impact on the negotiation process. Especially the latter. If you want a rule of thumb on egos, here it is: Check your ego at the door.
It’s a rule of thumb Columbo knew — and constantly used — to his advantage.
Published January 10, 2003 The Business Journal