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Universalists of the World – Beware

Stephen White

Imagine this scenario. You are driving through city streets as a passenger with a colleague at the wheel. He is driving faster than the speed limit, trying to get a meeting on time, and is involved in a minor accident; no one is hurt but the police are called. Passers-by who witnessed the event tell the police they think your colleague was speeding. He asks you to speak as a witness on his behalf; to testify that he wasn’t speeding. What would you do?

The Universalist sees this problem in terms of the uniformity of the application of laws and regulations. The issues of loyalty and the attempt to be punctual for a meeting are irrelevant; if the law has been broken then the consequences should be suffered by all, notwithstanding special circumstances or relationships.

The Particularist sees the same problem in terms of extenuating circumstances and relationships. No one got hurt, you know your colleague is usually a safe driver, being truthful may well affect the relationship with him and possibly impose a driving penalty on him as well.

Many believe that where you are on this spectrum is at least in part a result of national and cultural predispositions. For example, the Brits and the Germans tend towards the Universalist end of the spectrum, whilst the Italians, the Brazilians and the Greeks tend towards the Particularist end.  A classic example of this is the way in which the signatories to the formation of the Euro currency treated differently the convergence criteria which accompanied membership of the club. The Universalist countries scrupulously adhered to the rules, some tried but failed, and the more Particularist countries aspired to get there but persistently exercised fiscal policy which guaranteed that they wouldn’t.

Why am I writing about this in a Negotiating forum? Because I believe the trend in our commercial lives is for corporate negotiators to be Universalist. Negotiations are increasingly constrained by rules, sometimes applied externally by legislation, and sometime internally by the corporation, but which everyone has to obey. Procurement people are often driven by the need to compare, and so devise methodologies which only captures comparable material, so where a supplier has a genuine difference which others cannot match it is excluded from consideration because it is literally incomparable.

Two examples of the Universalist approach. In a recent RFP pitch for a Norwegian client we asked the client if we could have a meeting during the response timeframe to discuss more about the nature of the problem. We were refused on the grounds that Norwegian law prohibited the possible preferment of some of responders compared with others (by meeting some and not others) because they had to give everyone the same information. As a result the rudimentary brief which had been issued prevented all the respondents from being more creative in trying to find a solution to the client’s needs.

Even more recently a public sector tender was blighted by a decision by the client to slavishly follow a set of arbitrary rules. The individual consultant who was to do the work if selected had to conform to a number of criteria; at least 10 years in post, with at least 7 years’ experience of this type of consulting, and involvement in at least 2 similar projects in the last 2 years. The successful bidder would be chosen without the client meeting the nominated consultant. In a debrief after the winner was notified we expressed surprise that the client hadn’t wanted to meet the successful consultant before confirming the appointment, because although the consultant might have technically met the criteria they might still have been unsuitable – in simple terms the consultant might have been a time-serving duffer. The client’s response was unsettling. A meeting, they said, would have been a waste of time because they had no scale on which they could measure the degree of ‘dufferness’

The real losers in both examples are the clients, who chose to apply regulations as Universalists rather than look at any special circumstances which might have allowed some tolerance, and as a result they probably didn’t get the optimal solution.

Negotiating requires flexibility of thinking and approach, ability to be creative about boundaries and methods, innovation about variables and no-go areas. Universalists tend to struggle with these concepts to the detriment of themselves and their counter-parties.

Stephen White 

Stephen White
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