Negotiation: Playing Chicken

This article is part of the Negotiation Series.

Chicken is a famous game by which two drivers drive their cars towards each other at high speed. The first driver to swerve to safety is deemed a “chicken” and the loser. If neither driver swerves then a high speed collision results with serious injury and even death. This negotiating style has gained popularity as the strategy that a hard nosed negotiator uses, it has become sexy. This is a problem as it is completely destructive and after any game of negotiation chicken the working relationship between the parties involved become irreparably harmed. There are different ways to define the chicken game and some people use the word brinksmanship interchangeably. Rather than get into an argument about what it should mean, I will simply define the game in terms of what I have seen: chicken is when a negative outcome has become assured, or likely, unless one of the negotiating parties backs down, i.e. takes action that has a cost to such party.

One major class of the game of chicken is when a contract is approaching expiry and needs to be renewed. The simplest example is an employment fixed term contract. In this example the characteristics of the loss are asymmetrical, the employee is losing his job and the employer is losing an employee, but the costs are not that different, the employee finding a new job and the employer finding a new employee.

This example illustrates quite well why playing chicken is long term value destructive. If an employee threatens his employer with work stoppage unless his demands are met, how can the employer trust the employee in the future? Similarly if the employer threatens the employee with termination, how can the employee feel safe and secure in his job? The reasons do not have to be malicious, both parties could be negotiating in good faith, but results are nonetheless destructive.

If you are on the receiving end of a game of chicken the first thing that you need to understand and accept is that your relationship with your counter party is over.  The second thing that you need to understand is that your aim is no longer the original goals that you wanted from the negotiation but instead to figure out how to manage your exit from the relationship in the best possible way.

The first two issues are challenging only from an emotional point of view, you feel bad at being mistreated, but the actual strategy and tactics are clear and do not need much thought. The third issue is what is difficult: acquiesce to the chicken strategy and risk others finding out and repeatedly using it against you, or fight back which has its costs but ensures future negotiators understand that you will not accept playing chicken. This is really difficult, especially since people who play chicken against you are usually cowards and therefore will do it when they think they have the stronger position.

Your first response should be to put up a bit of a fight, just for show. If you quickly recognise the game and switch to short term exit negotiation you will alert your counter party. A little struggle creates a smoke screen that is useful. Then, ask for a break in negotiations so you have time to think. If you have put up the fake fight then your counter party will think he is winning and he will concede to the break request.

At this point you need to focus on how to exit with the minimum of cost or risk and put aside any emotional ill will that can cloud your judgement. The details will of course depend on the contract. It is also important that you do not tip off your counter part as to your intention. He is clearly not reasonable so it is best to allow him to think that he is won.

The biggest mistake that I have seen when the game of chicken is initiated is that the people targeted engage in that game. Put your ego aside and move on. These people are meaningless. What is important is to transition to more fulfilling relationships.


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