The Negotiator Magazine

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Morals and Ethics - False Milestones in Negotiation

By Radu Ionescu

One of my clients, a real estate developer, consulted me about a problem concerning a ten floor office building he was seeking to rent. He was negotiating with a potential client, A, about renting 7 floors of the building. They almost had reached a deal but the draft of the contract was at A's office for approval. There had been no answer for a month. Meanwhile, another potential client, B, approached the developer about leasing the whole building at a higher rent than client A proposed to pay.

My client's question was: Can I start negotiating with client B when I have almost agreed to rent to A? Would it be ethical to do so?

My question is: Are morals and ethics direct guidelines in negotiation? Maybe I will come to a surprising answer, but my opinion is no, they are not determinant in negotiation. Morals and ethics are indirect results of our actions.

What drives us into a negotiation? Our interests, of course.

We all agree with that, but what if by following our interests we might hurt others? Let us consider my client, for example. What is in the best interest of my client? Is it to lease the whole building at a higher rent to B or to go along with client A who is considering renting only 7 floors at a smaller rent? How can ethics solve this problem? It can not do so.

If my client finds a way to negotiate with client B and also to secure his relationship with client A, then everything is all right. It's all about relationships. Should we care about them? Of course, if we want a long term business. We can not profit from every client and then turn our back on them.

There are also situations, at limits, when we can not afford to care about relationships. There are extreme cases of life and death, or survival of lives or business. What do we follow in those cases, when we are desperate? Only our interests. We don't even think about ethics or morals.

Can we be ethical or moral against our interests? Not really. One might argue that charity, religion and other social activities are based on ethics and morality and sometimes we act against our interests. Well, do we? It's just that in those cases our interests are not necessary linked with material outcomes but with relationships here on earth and our relationship with God. Still, they are our interests.

So, if in most cases we search for our best interests, how can we succeed in our goals and still be ethical? The answer is in attitude. It doesn't matter what we do, but it does matter how we do it. And how we do it, it depends on our behavior.

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September 2005