Should one wake up a counterpart in a multistakeholder negotiation involving citizens, governmental agencies and businesses? Should one provide information that is deeply relevant to the issue at hand, but that at the same time may worry several parties or that may put them in a position to be more critical towards you and your ideas for potential solutions? According to Sun Tzu and Nicoló Macchiavalli, it is entirely reasonable to strengthen your own position by withholding information. You can ‘win’ by keeping the other party (or opponent) in the dark. This disbalance in information will definitely ‘hurt’: it inflicts damage on the less informed party. However, in negotiation, it also inflicts damage on the reputation of the ‘winning’ party, when the withheld information comes to light. In the Netherlands, quite some organisations are known as ‘untrustworthy’, because crucial information was withheld once or more often in the past. Often, not poking the bear is embedded in our thinking and acting, consciously or not.
With increased access to information via internet, increased transparency in research and the growing number of Government Information Act-requests, withholding information for long periods of time becomes more difficult but has it changed the basic tendency to keep other parties in the dark for as long as reasonably possible? When important decision are being made, more information is being brought to light under the pressure of the media, politicians and empowered citizens. Therefore, not poking the bear has increasingly become a more dangerous strategy. For politic al leaders, withholding requested information from elected representatives is a mortal sin, but also for negotiators in general it is high risk strategy.
If you believe negotiation is a means of working together towards a shared result in which all parties gain, poking the bear early can be a wise(r) strategy.
If the interests of stakeholders are adversely affected in a particular project or policy, for example in terms of income, health or quality of life, these interests are legitimate. Stakeholders should be informed from the start, or as early as possible, and given the chance to ask questions and express their opinion, even when this opinion is potentially highly negative. Organisations in the public domain have a moral obligation to make sure that a stakeholder will have the opportunity to do so; preferably at an early stage when you are still in a position to act on the key interest s at stake. Once the decision is being made and in turns out only afterwards that a large issue was not considered in light of specific party interests, courts often have the power to overturn the decision. This in turn can have hugely negative consequences for the party originally withholding the information.
Careful preparations of decision making requires process facilitators and negotiators to know the impact of their proposed projects or policy changes, especially when this impact is painful. And even when the stakeholder doesn’t feel the pain yet. In our experience with Strategic Stakeholder Engagement, this is one of the biggest challenges for our clients: having the courage poke the bear early on. It is also one of the most important tasks of a process facilitator or stakeholder manager: having the courage to speak truth to power when their clients opt to leave the bear asleep.