Effective Threats

July 31, 2017“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) says in The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie threat ever, Corleone had dominant negotiation leverage – his counterpart faced certain death if he refused Corleone’s “offer.”

By contrast, the media recently reported that President Donald Trump instructed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to speak with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on health care and “remind” her of the Interior Department’s control of many issues affecting Alaska.

Trump’s threat didn’t change her vote against the Republican plan.

Of course, I’m not suggesting Trump behave like the Godfather. But there are effective and ineffective threats.

If and when and how should you use threats?

First, understand the fundamental nature of threats. Northwestern Professor Adam Galinsky and Brigham Young Professor Katie Liljenquist define a threat as “a proposition that issues demands and warns of the costs of noncompliance” in “Putting on the Pressure: How to Make Threats in Negotiations” in Harvard’s Negotiation newsletter.

Threats constitute an often-unspoken element in almost all negotiations. They’re actually a super aggressive effort to exercise leverage. Leverage, as my regular readers know, relates in part to the strength of your alternative to a deal with your counterpart (your Plan B if your deal is Plan A) relative to their alternative to a deal with you (their Plan B).

Your ability to negatively impact their perception of their Plan B through a threat – the costs of noncompliance with your offer – strengthens your leverage. The worse you can make their Plan B seem with a threat, the more likely they will accept your Plan A by comparison.

Threats are also not inherently evil. As Galinsky and Liljenquist note, “[r]esearchers have found that people actually evaluate their counterparts more favorably when they combine promises with threats rather than extend promises alone. Whereas promises encourage exploitation, the threat of punishment motivates cooperation.”

Understanding this, follow these four research-based guidelines in deciding how to use threats.

1. Strategically Plan Your Threats

“Put your bike away now, or no electronics for a week,” you might threaten after you find your 10-year-old’s bike in the driveway for the umpteenth time.

Every parent has lost their temper at some point. Does it help? Usually not.

Threats based on anger, volatile emotion, and momentary pressures are almost always counterproductive. Galinsky and Liljenquist note that “multiple studies have linked anger to reduced information processing, risky behaviors, and clouded judgment.”

Strategically planning your threats in advance, not reacting instinctively, addresses these concerns. Such planning also reduces the possibility of counterthreats and retaliation, which could escalate and spiral out of control.

The goal of a threat is to satisfy your interests. Use it to motivate cooperation, not to punish.

2. Threaten Only in Limited Circumstances

Northwestern Professor Jeanne Brett and her colleagues, according to Galinsky and Liljenquist, have identified three circumstances in which threats can be necessary and effective:

Getting your counterparts to the table when facing a seemingly intractable deadlock (like threatening aggression or sanctions to get a recalcitrant country to engage in peace talks);

Breaking an impasse by signaling strength and fortitude (bullies sometimes only respond if you demand respect by flexing your muscles); and

As a mechanism to ensure compliance and implementation of an agreement.

The reason to only threaten in limited circumstances? Even well-crafted threats may carry significant negative consequences, as noted by Galinsky and Liljenquist, including:

Provoking resistance and anger, thus decreasing your counterparts’ likelihood of granting your wishes;

Undermining an agreement’s legitimacy if your counterpart believes it resulted from coercion; and

Inciting a desire for vengeance (“[p]sychologists,” Galinsky and Liljenquist write, “have found that revenge has biological foundations, persisting until it is satisfied, like hunger. The more severe a threat’s consequences, the more extreme the retaliation is likely to be.”)

Don’t make threats a regular part of your repertoire. Selectively use them.

3. Credible Threats Work – Empty Threats are Counterproductive

Don’t start a war you’re not prepared to fight and finish. Former President Barack Obama famously threatened Syria with severe consequences if it crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons.

What did he do after the world saw unmistakable evidence it had crossed his red line? Said he didn’t have authority from Congress to even engage militarily and negotiated a deal to stop it from happening again.

Did this prevent Syria from doing it again? No. Did Obama and the United States lose significant credibility relating to its future promises and threats with Syria and the rest of the world? Yes.

Reputations matter, especially relating to the credibility of threats.

4. Frame Your Threats to Satisfy Your Counterparts’ Interests

Effective threats should also be framed so they can be realistically satisfied and not engender ill will. They should thus:

be specific and detailed;

address your counterpart’s interests;

be delivered respectfully in a measured, serious tone;

include meaningful consequences;

link to a timeline; and

possibly include an escape route if circumstances change.

Also use them sparingly in situations involving a future relationship between the parties. Threats can backfire long-term.

Then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981 threatened 12,000 striking air traffic controllers with the loss of their jobs if they did not report back to work “within 48 hours” of his statement. 11,359 did not comply. He fired them.

According to Galinsky and Liljenquist, “[m]any observers view Reagan’s controversial threat and follow-through as a pivotal moment in his presidency and the foundation for future political victories.”

Latz’s Lesson: I’ve made you an offer here you can easily refuse. Don’t. As Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry would say – “make my day.”