Monday, December 22, 2003

Either Flunking Negotiation 201
Or Failing the New Guy  

"There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate;
when he can't afford it, and when he can." -- Mark Twain

There are some drop-dead simple rules of negotiation. This is not going to be about one of those. There are some rules of negotation that anyone who has been in a position of responsibility for a few months should never mess up. This is about one of those. I don't know who is actually responsible for the little implosion here, but someone really messed up badly, and, unless there was an unusually self-destructive lie involved, it's the kind of flub that's unforgiveable because it's totally avoidable.

Last week, the New York Mets & the Seattle Mariners appeared to have a deal I call a "toxic waste swap". The Mets were going to dump their overpaid, never-was outfield disappointment, Roger Cedeño, to the Mariners for Seattle's overpaid, once-was-decent-but-no-longer third baseman disappointment, Jeff Cirillo.

Both sides made the pre-official announcement, but then it didn't go through. Apparently, Cirillo exercised his no-trade contract right to prevent his being shipped to New York. His reason: he wanted to be a starter, not a bench-player, and since both the Mariners and Mets had made clear he'd be used only as a bench player, he chose to stay where he was instead of move across the country to be in a role he didn't want to be in. Rather than uproot his family, or live separately from them, he chose to be miserable at home insead of in New York.

Logical, given the lose-lose nature of his "choices". But here's the unnerving note, quoted from today's New York Daily News piece from John Harper:

On Friday the Mets reached an agreement with the Mariners to trade Cedeño for Jeff Cirillo, but the Mariners third baseman invoked a limited no-trade clause in his contract and vetoed the deal. A source with knowledge of the deal said Bill Bavasi, the Mariners' new GM, was caught by surprise, unaware that Cirillo could nix the deal.

Perhaps it was Bavasi's fault for not knowing Cirillo's contract. I have, sadly, seen many managers outside of baseball make similar mistakes, speaking for some underling in a director's meeting only to discover the underling wouldn't go along willingly. The foundation of that mistake in the cases I've seen as a consultant is usually what I call the "General Haig Syndrome". It's an overpoweringly delusional, self-aggrandizing belief that since someone reports to you, you can make them walk happily on hot coals or into enemy machine guns just because you told them to.


I don't believe that's what happened in this Cirillo case. The language of the Daily News piece makes it look like no Mariner front-office person re-read & understood Cirillo's contract before they negotiated, because if they had, they wouldn't have been surprised. Bavasi, as the chief figure on the Mariner side will ultimately be "responsible", but someone on his staff should have told the New Guy (who wasn't in the Mariner front office when the deal was negotiated) that Cirillo had a limited no-trade right in his contract.

There are two darker possibilities, one highly unlikely, and one I've found to be somewhat common in competitive management environments.

1) Cirillo was informed of the deal and was asked if he would approve, and agreed verbally to the trade and then said "no". He might do that to anger the Mariners enough to grant him an unconditional release so he could negotiate another deal without another team needing to compensate the Ms, which would give Cirillo more latitude and choice in making a deal (since the acquiring team would have one fewer party to please and probably would have to yield less overall to make a deal).

While possible, this is actually highly unlikely. Cirillo is not a construction worker who can just move to another city and have his behavior "disappear". Baseball is a closed system, so the hypothetical other front office would find out Cirillo had lied to his management. That would add a layer of mistrust and overhead to negotiating with him. This is a cost they might go to for a great player, but not one who for five years was nicely above average, for two years was average, and for two years has been just hanging on by his fingernails and fielding skill. Also, it doesn't seem like anything else he's done or fit his other behaviors.

2) Someone or some group of people in the Seattle front office decided to humiliate the New Guy (Bavasi) by hanging him out to dry in some kind of white-collar hazing ritual involving public humiliation.

This is more common than you'd think, especially in competitive environments where the number of available job seekers is way more than the number of available positions. I consulted to an investment group where they appointed one of a staff of six to be acting group leader with the thought that he might make a good permanent, but all the former-peers actively worked to undermine him so that when he failed, each would have a better chance to replace him. The cure for the investment group was to anoint the acting leader permanent (because you can always unmake it later, but for now, it makes intentional undermining a lower-yield strategy) and link the whole group's financial compensation to the leader's success (because investment people are most often most-motivated by money; this wouldn't work as well for teachers or social workers or scientists).

I don't know if someone intentionally undermined Bavasi, if Bavasi himself messed up or if Cirillo lied. But if it's not the last possibility, someone just flunked Negotiation 201: Don't speak for an employee without enlisting her to your plan first.

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