Symposium Book Club – Conversation with Rafael Gely About Walton and McKersie’s A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations

This is part of the “virtual book club” discussing readings for the symposium at the University of Missouri on October 7:  Moving Negotiation Theory from the Tower of Babel Toward a World of Mutual Understanding.

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Rafael Gely suggested that we read Walton and McKersie’s 1965 book, A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations: An Analysis of a Social Interaction System (ABTLN).  Here’s his summary:

Chapter 1 of this seminal book serves three purposes.  First, it introduces readers to what the authors called the “touchstones” of their study: “the field of collective bargaining; the emerging field of conflict resolution; and the underlying disciplines of economics, psychology, and sociology.”

Second, the chapter discusses the theoretical framework, which Walton and McKersie defined as composed of four subprocesses – integrative, distributive, attitudinal and intraorganizational bargaining.

Finally, the chapter identifies the types of propositions that the underlying theory is likely to generate.  According to the authors, “the few propositions which we have made explicit and the other propositions which are implicit in the statement of the theory are about how people actually tend to behave and how elements of the process actually interact.”

John:  This book is a true classic.  It set out the two-model structure of negotiation theory (of integrative and distributive negotiation) a quarter century before it was popularized in Getting to Yes.  In 2015, Negotiation Journal published a special issue with lots of articles commemorating the 50th Anniversary of ABTLN.

The book is well organized and it is easy to grasp the main ideas.  Chapter 1 provides a good overview and Chapter 10 synthesizes the material.  The second edition, published in 1980, includes a helpful foreword by Thomas Kochan putting the book in historical context and there are very helpful introductions to the both the first and second editions.

The book describes four “subprocesses” or “models” of negotiation:  distributive bargaining, integrative bargaining, “attitudinal structuring,” and intraorganizational bargaining.  The book devotes two chapters to each of the four subprocesses.  For each subprocess, there is a chapter setting out the general theory and a second chapter describing the tactics used in the subprocess.

The general principles described about distributive and integrative bargaining are familiar to anyone with a basic understanding of negotiation theory about adversarial and cooperative approaches to negotiation.  “Attitudinal structuring” is a puzzling term referring to efforts to influence negotiation counterparts.  Intraorganizational bargaining (later called “internal bargaining”) refers to the negotiation within each side.  This is sometimes referred to as negotiation “behind the table” as distinct from negotiation with counterparts “across the table.”

Paralleling the four subprocesses, the book argues that the key issues in the negotiation process are the degree of (1) commitment to negotiators’ positions, (2) openness in communication, (3) trust, and (4) internal control.

In Chapter 11, the book analyzes a case of an international negotiation (dealing with the Cuban missle crisis) and civil rights negotiation to illustrate that the theoretical framework is not limited to the labor negotiations which are the focus on the most of the book.

One of the things I especially like about the book is that it relies on a lot of qualitative sociological research describing actual labor negotiations, which seem very realistic.  Many publications rely on hypothetical cases or narrowly abstracted case studies that seem to assume away much of the reality of life.

Rafael, you added to the Symposium reading list the article by James Sebenius from the 2015 issue of Negotiation Journal: “Why A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations Remains a Triumph at Fifty but the Labels “Distributive” and “Integrative” Should Be Retired.”

Sebenius argues that some of the language in the book and common “folklore” regarding the terms “distributive” and “integrative” leads to some common confusions.  He states that issues, such as the division of money, are not inherently distributive or integrative.  Rather, negotiators’ behavior may fit into one or the other categories.  Thus, issues that are supposedly distributive can be resolved with joint gain through tactics such as linkage to other issues.

Perhaps most importantly, Sebenius notes that the reference to distributive and integrative “models” gives the false impression that they are distinct processes that cannot be linked.  The discussion in the book – and, indeed, the term “subprocesses” – suggests that the authors did not view them as distinct and coherent models.  Sebenius advocates the terms “creating value” and “claiming value,” from his book with David Lax, The Manager as Negotiator: Bargaining for Cooperation and Competitive Gain (1986).

This critique of negotiation models is consistent with other readings on our list including Andrea Schneider’s article, Teaching a New Skills Paradigm,  and my piece, A Framework for Advancing Negotiation Theory: Implications from a Study of How Lawyers Reach Agreement in Pretrial Litigation.

I assume that this is an accurate summary as far as it goes, would you agree?  Are there important concepts or principles in the book that you would add, emphasize, or elaborate?

You are an expert in labor law and the book relies primarily on labor negotiations, especially negotiations during the peak of the labor movement.  Are there useful insights derived from this perspective?

Rafael:  John, thanks for starting this discussion.  Yes, your summaries of ABTLN and of the Sebenius’ article are accurate, and they both capture nicely the essence of the two pieces.

As a quick aside, I would like to encourage readers to take a look at the issue of the Negotiation Journal in which Sebenius’s article appears.  The issue contains 28 short but very thoughtful articles on all different aspects of ABTLN.

There is a lot to be said about ABTLN both in terms of its place as a piece of scholarship in general and in the labor relations literature in particular.  However, for purposes of the discussion as it pertains to this symposium, let me make three short points.

First, despite the shortcomings that Sebenius and others have identified with the framework, I continue to think that ABTLN provides a very useful model for understanding a wide variety of negotiations. It certainly nicely explains a lot of what happens in the collective bargaining process.  I believe it is also applicable to many other contexts.

Second, you refer to the “Attitudinal Structuring” label as a “puzzling term.”  I actually think the attitudinal component is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and particularly meaningful in the context of collective bargaining.  In the labor relations process, negotiating the contract is just really the beginning of the contractual relationship.  Even more so than with other types of contracts, if the parties want the contract to work they need to learn how to work together.

On the employer side, failure to do so will likely result in a barrage of grievances being filed, or worse, it might result in the union taking actions disruptive of the production process.  On the union side, failure to live under the terms of the agreement will likely result in the employer taking actions that will bind the union in litigation and deplete union’s resources.

So the attitudinal bargaining that takes place while negotiating the collective bargaining agreement affects not only the negotiation process but what happens thereafter.  In raising this issue, W&M provides us with a theoretical framework to understand how the long-term nature of the relationship affects the negotiation process.

Third, I am glad that in your post you mentioned your recent article, “A Framework for Advancing Negotiation Theory.”  I actually suggested the Sebenius article as one of my pieces for the reading list because it reminded me of your own critique about the mismatch between negotiation theory and what really takes place in legal negotiations.

As I understand it, your argument is that the dichotomy between positional and interest based bargaining (equivalent to W&M’s distributive and integrative bargaining) does not capture the complexity of the legal negotiation process. You also argue that the two basic models are confusing because they bundle a variety of elements which do not always are experienced in neatly wrapped packages around the positional and interest labels.  That seems to me to be similar to Sebenius’ main quibble with the labels used by W&M.

On pages 340-342, Sebenius makes an interesting point, which I think might be relevant to your own work.  Sebenius raises the question of whether the distributive and integrative bargaining processes are separate processes or are inherently linked.  He notes that a common misunderstanding of W&M’s model is that the two processes are mutually exclusive, or in what he calls a “a slightly more sophisticated take,” that integrative bargaining is “the enlightened successor to distributive bargaining.”  Sebenius contends that the two processes are inherently linked.  He notes that there is evidence that the “path-dependent process by which value is generally created can heavily affect its ultimate division between the parties.”

In your article, you argue that the most significant aspect of your framework is that “it disaggregates variables that theorists have aggregated into distinct models.” My question is the following.  If Sebenius is right and there is a path-dependency across decisions that parties make during negotiations (e.g., competitive moves drive cooperative moves out), one would expect that ultimately the various characteristics of negotiations will “self-bundled” in some specific groupings.  If that is the case, what is the advantage of disaggregating the factors the way you do?

John:  Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, Rafael.  I especially appreciate your comments about the labor context, which was so prominent when W&M first wrote their book.

I will mostly address your question, though I first want to note that although I think that the term “attitudinal structuring” is confusing, I agree that the discussion of these issues is very helpful.

I certainly felt validated to read Sebenius’s article as well as Andrea Schneider’s piece that I cited.  The two-model structure in much of our literature and discourse seems so problematic but deeply entrenched in the collective mindset of our field.  I hope our symposium will help people shift their thinking to use more realistic and helpful concepts.

I am sure that there are some general relationships between creating and claiming value, which Sebenius suggests are inherently linked and what you refer to as being “self-bundled.”  But I am also sure that the connection between the two varies greatly in practice, as Sebenius implies as well.

Thus, rather than starting from the assumption that there is a tight association between features of negotiation such as creating and claiming value, I think that it is better to analyze this empirically in particular contexts.

Perhaps there is a substantial and robust body of evidence supporting a bundling theory.  I haven’t reviewed all the empirical research and it’s been quite a while since I looked at Lax and Sebenius’s book.

But if I was a betting man, I would bet that any such evidence is thin and that it wouldn’t support the broad generalizations that we usually take for granted in our field.  Perhaps our friends in this symposium or others will be able to point to some relevant research about this issue.

The following table adapted from my article identifies six variables that law school negotiation texts refer to when defining the two basic models.  In analyzing accounts of actual pretrial negotiations, I found that there seemed to be a strong relationship between these variables in some cases but not in others.

Lande Negotiation Framework grid

For example, a lawyer described the negotiation of a labor grievance in which the employee, union, and company had limited direct communication about their apparent interests but nonetheless reached an agreement that seemed to satisfy the interests of all three.  This case seems to contradict the notion that sharing of information about interests and options is necessary to create value.  Although my study involved a small sample, I am persuaded that there is generally greater variability of negotiation dynamics than is embodied in our traditional models of aggregated variables.

One advantage of disaggregating variables is that it stops us from thoughtlessly cruising along, accepting familiar but misleading conceptions of how negotiations actually occur in real life.  Frameworks like this and others in our reading list can enable us to think and communicate more precisely and, as suggested by the title of our symposium, move negotiation theory toward a world of greater mutual understanding.

2 thoughts on “Symposium Book Club – Conversation with Rafael Gely About Walton and McKersie’s A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations”

  1. What a great way to answer the question do you know any good books on negotiation! I enjoyed the way this post illustrates how these wonderful scholars have explored the complexity of negotiation. Thank you so much for this summary which provides perspective on how our field has evolved.

  2. Thanks for this exchange. Your discussion prompts me to reflect on the foundations of mediation and how much we “borrowed” from labor-management negotiations and mediation to craft mediation in other contexts, especially in court-related settings in the 80s and 90s. For me, coming from the labor-management field, the idea of valuing both integrative and distributive aspects of negotiation were in my DNA as a mediator. That was true for the emotional elements, too. In the unionized setting, all types of issues – from salary and grievance procedures to hurt feelings – were important because they were important to members. And of course there was definitely an ongoing relationship!

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