Back in March I wrote this post about the breakdown in negotiations between Ryan Smyth (a hockey star) and the Edmonton Oilers. Because things fell apart despite the fact that Smyth, the Oilers and their fans all wanted an agreement, this negotiation remains my favourite example about how process, and not substance, can torpedo agreements and destroy relationships. Indeed, the case is so good, it has become a key teaching tool in my negotiation workshops (when in Canada, of course…).
Interestingly, recent events have added to the important negotiation lessons that can be drawn.
When sharing the case some people contended that Smyth and the Oilers didn’t fall out but instead cut a secret deal, one that would bring Ryan back to Edmonton once he became a free-agent. The fact that, after being traded, Ryan stood crying in the Edmonton Airport while awaiting his flight to New York didn’t dissuade these doubters. This was of course, all part of the act.
Well, on July 2nd, on the first day of free-agency, Ryan Smyth signed a contract with the Colorado Avalanch for $31.25 million. A bad outcome for Oilers fans, but a good outcome for my credibility as a negotiation consultant.
So why didn’t Smyth go back to Edmonton?
I can think of two reasons – both of which spring from the positional negotiation process Smyth and the Oilers adopted.
Firstly, the previous negotiations permanently damaged relations between Smyth and the Oilers. A haggling process never builds a stronger relationship. It generally involves the parties slugging it out as they tell one another why the other’s current offer is insulting. Of course none of it’s “personal.” But isn’t it is telling that the Oilers broke off negotiations and traded Smyth without notifying him (I believe he learnt he’d been traded by watching TV). Moreover, as I mentioned before, Smyth was distraught enough to cry during the interview in the airport. You don’t have to be a negotiation consultant to know that when one person makes another cry, the agrieved party is looking for ways to work with them again. In this case, Smyth probably wasn’t receptive to any new offers from the Oilers. Their prior negotiation burnt that bridge.
Second, the Oilers painted themselves into a corner on the issue of price. I’ve maintained that Smyth probably wanted to be in Edmonton or Calgary. In the above linked to YouTube video Smyth says his heart is in Edmonton, and he probably wants to be close to family, community, charitable work, etc… I suspect he might have accepted a marginally reduced salary in order to stay there. But with other teams now offering over $31 million, the Oilers probably needed to offer $29-30 million in order to compete. Given their previous “best” offer had been $27 million, any new higher offer would be an admission that they’d undervalued Smyth. That left them with two options. Option 1: Eat humble pie, offer $30 million and admit they’d been lowballing Smyth. In the testosterone world of hockey I suspect the Oilers GM’s ego couldn’t stomach that choice… Not that it would have mattered, any such an offer would have been tainted. It would be like saying “sorry we tried to screw you in our previous negotiations, but we hope that you’ll come work for us now that we’ve been forced to offer you more.” That left option 2: Save face by walking away and claiming the Avalanch over-paid.
Of course, the Oilers’ GM may genuinely believe that Smyth isn’t worth $30 million. Who knows, he may be right. Only time will tell. But, the negotiation process he adopted – and not the substance – destroyed an opportunity for getting Smyth at a much lower price. Most people believe negotiations succeed or fail based on substance (can buyers and sellers agree on a price), sadly that is only sometimes the case. All too often, the determining factor is how we conduct negotiations.