Power-sharing talks within the Northern Ireland Assembly have broken down, with first minister Arlene Foster blaming Sinn Fein intransigence and a lack of Westminster input for the faltering Stormont setup. It is a particularly tense time for the province, following the recent death of former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – a moment that was drenched with symbolism in light of the Assembly’s long-running difficulties.
While every situation is different, deadlocks of this nature regularly crop up in corporate boardrooms, delaying or derailing deals to the dismay of the relevant stakeholders. While there’s no silver bullet, an impasse in negotiations can be surmounted – so what are the baseline faculties and perspectives that are vital for helping a deadlocked leader break through the paralysis and focus parties’ minds on progress?
“There are two things going on here,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “First, there appears to be an approach to negotiations in Northern Ireland that’s zero-sum, where each participant is thinking that there has to be a win-lose outcome, rather than a win-win. But over and above that, there’s a much wider question for them to bear in mind, which is simply: who are they serving?”
Cooper explains: “If they took a servant-leadership approach to this – which is to say, ‘We are working to this specific goal, for the greater good, for the benefit of the people we’re supposed to be leading’ – I think that would give them a very different perspective on the business of making it work. From the outside, and with so much at stake, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask, ‘How could they not make it work?’ They’re not recognising that there’s a higher ideal to be achieved – much less aligning themselves with it.”
For Cooper, adopting a servant-leadership stance can help leaders unglue themselves from the four walls of the negotiating room, take a look around and pay more attention to the context in which the talks are taking place. “Servant leadership is a recognition that there’s something bigger than your own ego, or your own, personal priorities, or as a representative of a specific entity,” she says. “That’s where I think the focus should be in negotiations of this type – and there are plenty of lessons that corporates can learn from it, too.”
For further thoughts on win-win negotiations, check out this learning item from the Institute