The US Press Corps vs. Trump: A Teachable Moment

Life is about negotiation. We negotiate our relationships — including marriage, which is a contract that many don’t take seriously. We negotiate our jobs, and we negotiate our interactions with our families. Those who are good at this tend to have relatively happy lives. While they don’t get everything they might want, they get more than most.

donald-trump-pressWhen things go badly, they degrade into wars — and in wars, both sides tend to lose.

That is what was in the front of my mind last week, when I read the idiotic open letter to President Trump from the U.S. Press Corps.

I imagine many applauded, because the Press Corps called President Trump on the carpet for a number of things and gave him a very succinct warning if he dared to do something they didn’t like.Their goal appears to be to avoid getting kicked out of the White House, but instead they may have ensured that outcome, because the letter reads like they are blackmailing Trump, which should enrage him.

Ironically, in the face of concerns surrounding President Trump abusing power, it is both ironic and really stupid that the U.S. Press Corps apparently is doing the same thing.

By the way, and this must be said, this declaration of war wasn’t triggered by candidate Trump’s vicious attacks on the press or any of the individual reporters, but by his thinking about kicking them out of his new home. I’m guessing “perspective” should be someone’s word of the day.

I’ll share more thoughts about that and close with my product of the week: the first home power monitor that uses analytics with the goal of keeping your electrical bill down.

 Abuse of Power

One of the most difficult parts of being a top executive is that as you move up in an organization, you gain more and more power, while you get fewer mentors and oversight. The scariest position is that of executive chairman, because that job — which those of us concerned about governance think shouldn’t exist — grants both ultimate power and minimal oversight.

Basically, even the board of directors works for you, and it is very easy to mix up what you have the right to do with doing what is right.

That is why I think having affairs and mistresses is so common at the top, along with CEOs being fired for cause. The crash and burn of Carly Fiorina was one of the most painful to watch. While she had infidelity issues with some of her employees, that wasn’t her problem. What finally set her up for getting fired was spending way too much time getting George W. Bush reelected andnot doing her CEO job well. What I think is particularly sad is that she had decent core skills — she just lacked empathy and job focus.

Steve Jobs was a tad too famous for his abuse of power — first for running around firing people who just struck him wrong (it was called “being Steved”) and then for fixing his own options, which almost got him fired a second time. By the way, there is a great urban legend about Steve trying to fire the copier repair man. It is way too close to the old joke about the captain and the lighthouse to be believed.

As an internal auditor, I ended up firing an impressive number of executives because they abused their power. They used their authority improperly, and those otherwise smart people screwed up their careers as a result.

It’s not just executives who abuse power. Embezzlement is an abuse of power, and it can happen inside a firm at any level. Police brutality is an abuse of power that is altogether far too common at the moment. We’ve seen kids and adults abuse the power social networks give them to bully and attack others, with Gamergate being one of the most notorious examples. (By the way, one of the key women attacked in the Gamergate scandal is running for Congress and is modeling her approach on a blend of what Trump did and a startup. Wishing her the best of luck!)

Blackmail, as a class, also falls under abuse of power.

Threat as a Motivating Tool

Generally, threats should be a last resort and work only if the other party believes you can and will do it. It works only if the other party doesn’t believe you’ll carry out the threat in any case. For instance, it makes no sense to pay ransom to a kidnapper who has a history of killing victims whose ransoms were paid.

In addition, those who are very wealthy quickly learn that if you give in to blackmail or threats, you effectively work for the person who attacked you. The common advice is that when given the choice of doing what’s demanded “or else,” risk the “or else” and respond overwhelmingly. Any other path just turns you into a perpetual victim.

So even if President Trump trusted the media, a letter that basically says “do what we want or else,” given that they’d likely do the “or else” anyway, should result in his kicking them out of the White House. Given that he doesn’t trust the media, his response more likely would follow the “respond overwhelmingly” option, making what has been a very ugly relationship vastly uglier.

In short, instead of accomplishing their goal of staying in the White House, they suddenly could be taking meetings in the outhouse. That’s what makes the letter stupid, but it is also suggests abuse of power, because the implied “or else” is an improper use of the influence a reporter has.

What the Press Corps Should Have Done

This situation basically is negotiation 101. Before you can make progress, you first have to rebuild trust. Fox News should have taken the lead in this effort, because he trusts them for the most part. Then representatives could have met with Trump to find out what he would want in exchange for keeping the corps in place in the White House.

That would have taken the effort from an all-out war into a negotiation, and President Trump positions himself as a great negotiator. His demands actually might be reasonable — or they might not — but until someone asks, you don’t know. In any case, you’ve entered into a process that could have a favorable outcome rather than a likely all-out war in which both sides lose.

In short, they might have done better if they had focused on achieving the goal rather than playing “who has the bigger…” with the new U.S. president.

Wrapping Up: The Art of Negotiation

Negotiation as a skill should be part of a general education. People in other countries generally are more proficient at it than people in the United States. I’ve seen Japanese negotiators regularly make fools of their American counterparts because they are vastly better trained in that art. Whether in your career or with your family, being good at this skill and not abusing it can make the difference between a having a happy and successful life or a disaster-filled drama.

A short lesson on negotiation: Have a clear idea of what you optimally want to accomplish and what you will accept. Learn the same things about your opponent. Ensure a foundation of trust, and create common ground — often called leveling — to begin the negotiation and work for a win, win. Finally — and this often is forgotten — ensure that your opponent gets what you agreed to give. That’s essential for building on the foundation of trust that you worked so hard to establish.

Abusing power to accomplish your goal can work once, but it destroys trust, and it will make the other side less reasonable and more vengeful. It often results in an escalation of unprecedented hostilities. With its letter, the U.S. Press Corps took the wrong path, and I expect that a hard-learned lesson will result.

As a side note, I have little doubt that the one word we surely will associate with the Trump presidency is “ironic.”

Aakash Ghosh

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