Negotiation: Appeals to Authority and the Burden of Proof

This article is part of the Negotiation Series.

Have you ever been in involved in a discussion or argument, knowing that you are correct and/or the other person is incorrect but had a hard time proving that you are right or the other person wrong? It is extremely frustrating. It can also be damaging to your career. The frustration comes from your difficulty in expressing logical arguments and, more often, recognising the logical fallacies in your opponent’s arguments. I’ll use an example of an executive who used false logic to try gain access to a large amount of funds. I will highlight the fallacies used in negotiation and how to counter them.

As background I led a committee that was in charge of the balance sheet of the company. A senior executive, let’s call him Bob,  wanted to launch a new service that needed frequent use of the balance sheet. As part of that Bob had received board approval for his project.

Bob next met with the committee I was leading. He didn’t bother discussing his proposal, he merely stated that the board had approved the project so the committee had to approve the balance sheet use. This is a powerful fallacy called Appeal to Authority. The idea here is that since someone in authority has approved the decision then it must be implemented without question. This is why bad things happen.

Decent people’s natural reaction at this point is to feel that there is something wrong. Why make an executive committee responsible if the authority is over-ridden by the board? The trick here is to recognise two important things: the board approved a service, not the details, and more importantly if the board had approved it why did it need the committee’s approval? You should never, ever, formally approve a request unless you actually approve of it.

After I tried, unsuccessfully, to point out to Bob that the board had not bypassed the committee I just played hardball: if the board had approved it then why was he seeking a second approval from a committee with subordinate authority? We wheeled in the Head of Compliance and he judged my position legally correct. The best way to counter an Appeal to Authority fallacy is to refuse to give the fallacy any legitimacy by rubber stamping it. If a higher authority has approved a decision then there is no need for you to be involved in ratifying the decision.

Next we reviewed the material  that Bob had presented to make our decision. The material was pitiful. It described the service with no discussion of the financial and operational risks present. The committee sent the proposal back to Bob to detail the risks and risk management policies for the new service. Weeks later we received an amended proposal. It was still woefully incomplete. We sent it back again.

Bob triggered a senior executive meeting in addition to the committee members, most of whom were senior executives as well. Bob wanted to make the case that he had provided enough material and wanted my decision over-ridden. After some discussion everyone, other than Bob, accepted that Bob had not provided enough material. This is when things got interesting.

Instead of accepting that he had done a bad job and reworking the proposal Bob became petulant and asked what exactly I wanted. I explained that I wanted all material risks identified and risk management processes in place to mitigate them. Bob said he needed more detail to be able to do his job. I explained that what I was asking for was a regular business case. Bob kept digging his heels in saying that I needed to provide him with information. I further explained that if he did not know what needed to go into a business case then he could not be trusted with the new business or the balance sheet he was requesting.

This little trick that Bob used is called the Burden of Proof fallacy. Normally the person making the proposal has the burden to prove his argument. The trick Bob attempted was to shift the burden of proof to me and make me do his work. This happens far too often! Remember to always make sure you understand when you have accepted work and why you are doing so.

I suggested Bob buy a copy of “Business Plans for Dummies” if he really did not understand how to make a business case. That didn’t go over well. Bob tried several other attempts that I won’t get into here. There is a corollary to this behaviour. Bob’s team learnt from Bob and had no respect for compliance with rules and regulations. This became abundantly clear when the new service had a major human error by Bob’s team in the first two weeks of launch.

Logical fallacies lead to bad decisions that harm the company. Senior executives who consistently use logical fallacies in their arguments need training to correct this severe deficiency and failure to do so should result in such executives being removed from their positions. There is no use having an authorities matrix and decision making processes if the actual human arguments are logically flawed.


You may also like Negotiation Basics: The Missing Lesson and Negotiation: Defending Against the Concession Tactic.