What Are You Haunted By In Business?

I live in south central Pennsylvania. York County, to be exact, less than an hour from Gettysburg. Between Boy Scout outings and school field trips, I have come to know the battlefield and the surrounding area well.

I have heard the battlefield is haunted. There are “ghost tours” of buildings, mostly bars and hotels now, that once served as field hospitals. Although I wouldn’t be surprised by the presence of ghosts, considering the number of men who fought and died there, I’ve never seen one.

I don’t know for sure if places are haunted, but I know that people are. Those are the hauntings I see almost daily.

A few months ago, a client called to ask if I could draft a non-compete agreement. She wanted me to make it unusually restrictive, preferring to take her chances it would be upheld by a Court if challenged.

Her preferences and later negotiating tactics had nothing to do with the person sitting on the other side of the table. I knew from my longstanding relationship with her that she was haunted by an employee who left her company more than a decade prior. She felt taken advantage of by that employee and remembers that episode as a failure.

In fact, that was the reason she first came to see me. She’s been chasing that ghost ever since, and it shows each time she sits down at the negotiating table.

It’s not just CEOs. No one in a leadership position is immune.

In the year 2000, the Screen Actors Guild embarked on the largest strike of its existence. At issue was payment by advertisers to actors for commercial appearances. The union maintained at the time that the battle was over the payments to be rendered for commercials “aired” in the largely unexplored world of the internet. Perhaps it was. But many maintained that the strike was so long and the rhetoric so heated because the union was trying to make up for having missed the boat on cable in the 1980s. The union was haunted by its perception of past failures, and the ghost made its presence felt in every aspect of the 2000 strike.

Many, if not most, of the really difficult negotiations of which I’ve been a part over the past quarter century have been made more so by ghosts. The more intractable the position, the more you can bet that the ghost of business past has taken a seat at the table.

In point of fact, very few negotiations, contracts and court cases can truly be said to be un-haunted.

It is my experience that such ghosts go unseen, are usually denied, but can never be successfully ignored.

The answer, then, is to address them, and by doing so effectively, to exorcise them. I’ve found that the best way to help my clients exorcise them is to ask them to tell me a story.

“Tell me a story about your worst experience with __________.”

“Tell me a story about the one that got away.”

“Tell me a story about your worst fear if we accept the other side’s proposal.”

It is in the stories that the spirit is finally exposed.

And whatever it is – the fear, the anger, the angst that wells up over a missed opportunity, the feeling of having been taken – can be dealt with and dissipated in the light of day. What results are better contracts, more reasoned settlements, and less time spent in an expensive war of litigation. Those are the results because, having addressed the ghosts, the parties are free to deal solely with the issues at hand.

And interestingly enough, that’s the easy part.

The hard part is accepting that places aren’t haunted; people are.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 27th, 2015 at 3:16 pm. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.