Project Practitioners > Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

By Michael Aucoin

In hockey, it will earn a player time in the penalty box. In soccer, it will result in the yellow card and an entry in the referee's notebook. In football, the consequence is a 15-yard penalty. Taken to extreme, an offending player may be ejected from the game.

Sportsmanship is an attractive and worthy ideal of sports - the principle of fair and respectful play and fellowship. Across different sports, we appreciate good competition, but we have also identified unwanted and offensive actions, or unsportsmanlike conduct. It is no surprise, then, that these principles apply to the subject of negotiation. However, there is often no “referee” to call a penalty when a negotiator engages in poor behavior. Entering the negotiation arena also means taking on the responsibility of a referee.

As part of the mini-series on negotiation, we will identify ways to deal with the unethical, conniving and no good so-and-sos that you may encounter in negotiations. I say it this way because, of course, we know that the good members and visitors to ProjectConnections would never stoop so low as to engage in unscrupulous negotiations!

To start, let us identify four categories of undesirable negotiation behavior. While understanding that there may well be considerable overlap among the categories, these characterizations help to illuminate distinctions. All are attempts by an actor to increase power.

  • Illegal behavior – Such behaviors are often readily identified. They may include bribery, threats, blackmail, or discrimination based on race, creed or gender.
  • Unethical behavior – A negotiation tactic may be legal but nevertheless unethical. Included in this category would be substantive deceptions that an objective party would consider wrong.
  • Bully behavior – A negotiator may be tough or play “hardball” as a way to gain advantage by striking fear in the other party.
  • Nuanced behavior – The final category includes behaviors that are in a gray area. White lies and subtle deceptions occur so frequently in negotiation that they are routinely expected. Yet, we also expect that such nuances not define the relationship.

One can readily observe that a key factor in considering what is unsportsmanlike is the significance of the behavior. For example, contact in basketball has to be substantive to be called a foul, hence the concept, “no harm, no foul”. In other words, context is important, including the sophistication of the involved parties.

In a former job at a university, I was part of a two-person team to begin negotiation to license technology to a large company that I will call Megaco. Their mid-level managers wanted to formalize what had been a long-term dialogue. We traveled across the country to meet one of these managers and the company attorney. The attorney immediately took control of the meeting and opened with an abrasive and arrogant game of hardball. He obviously deemed a university unworthy to play in the same league with Megaco. His terms were one-sided, and the deal was, “take it or leave it”. We had barely warmed our seats when he told us to decide what we wanted, and then he stepped out.

The Megaco manager apologized and seemed flustered. It was hard to know what to make of this situation. Perhaps we were in a game of “good cop, bad cop”, or perhaps the manager was truly taken by surprise. There was no way we would accept the one-sided deal, so we were pretty much done with any “negotiation” for the day. Nevertheless, we did eventually reach a mutually beneficial deal with Megaco. While I will never know exactly what happened behind the scenes, it is clear that someone intervened to block Attorney Hardball from further involvement.

This story gives an example of two important points to consider when across the table from a bully. First, a bully only has as much power as we are willing to give. Second, people dislike doing business with bullies. Whatever they may gain in the short term, they lose more in the long run because they drive people away.

Here are a few tips to remember in your negotiations with potential bullies, liars, deceivers, and all other sorts of miscreants.

  • Always remember your BATNA – You do have a BATNA, right? That’s your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, your Plan B. It is the most important element of a good position in negotiation, knowing what you will accept if this negotiation doesn’t work out. A good BATNA is the ultimate power in a negotiation.
  • Share and seek information – An underappreciated part of negotiation is the creation of shared information. It is the basis by which the parties lessen or increase interest in closing a deal. Probe the other party with relevant questions, and independently confirm what you hear. Be willing to share your interests with your counterpart as is appropriate to the level of trust that has been developed. Nothing beats having reliable and factual information on which the parties can deal.
  • Don’t go it alone – Sometimes we simply can’t avoid negotiation with difficult people. Unethical negotiators and bullies feel more powerful when they can isolate prey from the rest of the herd. There is power in being a member of a posse.
  • Endeavor to do business with good people – It seems obvious, but negotiation goes more smoothly when the parties genuinely want a good outcome for both sides. I have little patience for parties that are solely out for their own gain regardless of the cost to me.

It is challenging to be across the table from a difficult negotiator. You may feel at a disadvantage, but you can always attain a more powerful position. 

Do you have any good stories about how you dealt with a tough negotiator? Please share!


B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at

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