The bookshops here in Singapore are full of well-priced and familiar titles on negotiation (less so on mediation); and they are typically found in the “business communications” sections of the larger bookshops. Not far from these books, you’ll also find titles such as Sun Tsu’s The Art of War – and we sit (mostly comfortably) astride the norms and styles of East and West: a highly commercialised and modern, yet also traditional and hierarchical society.
What provokes today’s entry are a couple of comments, necessarily anonymous for this purpose, from students in a negotiation class, in their reflections on the negotiation simulations we’ve done and on the reading I’ve asked them to do.
First: we’d normally associate this region with a preference for the negotiation that is built on foundations of relationships, at least established sufficiently to move beyond the mere time-oriented efficiency associated with the West. What I note, however – and this is not a new observation for this year – is a preference for efficiency and pragmatism over enduring relations and principle. This is a bare description, I know, but I got an interesting reminder in a student comment to the effect that “we’re taught to be efficient in decision-making”. Quite what this efficiency amounts to is another matter, but it is likely to focus primarily on the completion of the deal in a timely manner.
More interesting – at least for observers from the West – might be the comment of another student in relation to the efficacy of threats used by Chinese-Singaporean parents, in comparison with the perceived soft threats by Western parents. The point made by the commentator is that the attempts to ‘reason’ with a child are usually futile and that more tangible threats are more effective: “Parents these days are attempting to negotiate and “talk sense” into their children instead of caning them, which is why so many of them are running around screaming their heads off, and hanging off the MRT handles. Nothing a good cane cannot cure, I’d say.”
This must be an interesting starting point for a conversation between New Zealand, with its ongoing debate about the repeal of s.59 of the Crimes Act (which effectively provided a defence to a parent who had used force, even violence, in the control of a child), and Singapore with its continued use of the cane as a part of the criminal punishment system.
But even without getting into that debate, which is not the point of this entry or this blog, what does interest me is the degree to which our assumptions about negotiation – and negotiability – are shaped by these norms which reflect differences in hierarchy, authority and power. They will surely also shape how we even regard the idea and process of mediation.
At the very least, the norms of Western mediation rest on a number of assumptions including:
– full participation in problem analysis and resolution;
– the agency of participants – that is, their capacity and willingness to engage in decision-making;
– the relative informality of the process (which, as we will see, is likely to be difficult in high power distance cultures);
– the relatively low substantive authority of the intermediary; and
the emphasis on interest-based bargaining, which assumes not only that the parties are attending to negotiable interests rather than values but also that the interests are subject to the bargaining choices and mandates of the parties.
Similarly, intercultural studies add to our knowledge through not only emphasising the diversity in the structure of social relationships and factors such as social mobility, but also in pointing to the persistence and reality of asymmetrical relationships and to the perceptions and norms which sustain and legitimate that asymmetry. Inequality of relationships and decision-making authority in negotiation counterparts is not likely to be mitigated merely through the adoption of a set of process norms that, for example, assume or seek to create equality of participation and voice in any transaction.
We can also say that the acceptance of authority – and at of the power that comes with it – has a countervailing aspect: The corollary of such acceptance of commitments reflecting hierarchical relationships is that those possessing authority are expected to act justly. Thus, in countries of moderately high power distance (in the terms of the model provided by the recently-deceased Edward T Hall), such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore individuals are aware of hierarchies but regard this as acceptable provided that those in authority also acknowledge, and act on the basis of their obligations. Members of such nations will still acknowledge frustration at aspects of power distance, but rarely act overtly on that frustration, though it might have an impact on, for example, organisational efficiency.
So, what’s going on under these brief and illuminating observations by negotiation course members is a set of assumptions – which will have their parallels in other regions of course – about the nature of social relations, power and authority . . . and the impact this is perceived to have on one’s autonomy in decision-making in negotiation or mediation.
 Norma R.A. Romm, Cheng-Yi Hsu, “Reconsidering the exploration of power distance: an active case study approach,” Omega (The International Journal of Management Science) 30: 403 – 414 (2002)