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Coro Fellows

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Deal or no deal?

Question: At the center of the labor dispute between NFL owners and professional football players is George Cohen, a federal mediator known for his work in helping Major League Soccer come to a resolution over its own labor battles. Mediators have no power or authority to compel either side to do anything, but they still have the capability to influence the outcome in nuanced ways. What must Cohen do to bring the more uncompromising members of both sides together to make a deal?

The following responses come from five of the fellows that make up the Coro St. Louis 2011 class.

Trust through shared commitments

At first glance, the NFL Players Association and team owners seem irreconcilably divided over $9 billion dollars to divvy up, potential expansion to an 18-game season, a rookie pay scale and retirement benefits. The owners perceive players as disrespectful and entitled. The players view the owners as greedy and unsympathetic to the long-term risks of playing professional football. Most challenging of all, both Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are new to their positions and lack a strong relationship.

Yet progress is possible, as last week's deadline extension shows. To reach a final agreement, mediator George Cohen must continue to build trust and relatedness between players and owners by appealing to their core commitments. Both Smith and Goodell are committed to increasing revenues, addressing football's impact on the brain and avoiding a strike like that which crippled baseball in 1994. Solving these challenges requires creativity and cooperation, which relationships foster. For instance, could players and owners compromise with a 17-game season, two bye weeks and one game played overseas, as former player and coach Herman Edwards has suggested? By empowering both parties to respect each other and recognize their shared commitments, Cohen can help the players and owners team up to forge innovative solutions.
--Chase Sackett (Cincinnati, OH)

Moving from "mine" to "ours"

"Even though we may feel in our business dealings or social relationships that we are listening very hard, what we are usually doing is listening selectively, with a present agenda in mind, wondering as we listen how we can achieve certain desired results and get the conversation over as quickly as possible or redirected in ways more satisfactory to us." (M. Scott Peck)

The role of a mediator is to bring two sides from the conscious and unconscious perspective of "my agenda" to the perspective of "OUR agenda". The first step is to help each side to truly understand where they themselves are coming from. As a representative of a large group, you may have a great understanding of your "official position" and no true realization of what that position is based on for you personally and for the people you represent. This basic understanding is the foundation for true dialogue between two sides.

The next step after you fully recognize your agenda is to put that agenda aside. Speak your truth and then let it go while you listen to the other side's perspective. In very large, very public negotiations, it is easy to get caught up in rhetoric and polarization. Toni Packer said, "Let us renew each other rather than force one another into old molds by harboring old images and ideas about each other in our minds".

This question's prompt said, "Mediators have no power or authority to compel either side to do anything." I disagree. The ability to bring two uncompromising sides to common ground is the ultimate power. There are many conflicts in our world today that have been sustained through demonization of the "other" and entrenchment of individual perspectives. If true listening could occur, true dialogue and compromise could happen. Imagine what that world could look like.
-- Mary T. Gleich (Hastings, MN)

Commitment to constituencies

"Neutral" seems to be a conceptual frame to define mediators in their professional role. To effectively mediate and achieve balanced influence with integrity, a suggestion for George Cohen is to strategically structure the process with the consideration of the constituencies, the fans of the "game". This group of people is the real buy-in, and both sides in this negotiation should be committed to their constituencies. By introducing the larger context, areas of agreement can be identified, which provide access to conflicts.

The process of defusing conflicts begins with inquiry. Effective inquiry goes from general to specific, incorporates what was in the past, what is current and what the future could look like. The neutral mediator also needs to inquire as to both sides' bottom line and to clarify the most important issues that are in line with the commitment to constituencies.

While the above suggest how to dig into the facts, George Cohen should also be reactive to the emotional behaviors from each side and artfully mediate the issue. More specifically, the art that distinguishes the mediation is to shift the paradigm of each side from negative thinking to positive thinking. What really helps is to focus on commitment to constituencies.
-- Xin Li (Chenzhou, China)

Moving past the issue at hand

Understanding both sides of an argument is always an asset in any dispute. Mediators are charged with the task of being able to understand both sides and still remain neutral. It is their neutrality that gives them power. The ability to mediate a conversation without bias opens the floor for both sides and makes the mediator the voice of reason. As a judge in a court makes decisions based on fact, a mediator must bring those facts to light and can only do so by bringing all the parties involved to the bargaining table.

In order to bring the more uncompromising parties to make a deal, mediators must be able to move past the topic at hand. Focusing on one aspect of a dispute is limiting and insufficient. The mediator must carefully steer the conversation through intentional questions, in order to have the parties involved see how they relate to one another in other paradigms. The conflict between NFL owners and professional football players must be viewed from multiple perspectives that extend past their current labor issue. It will be in defining their current relationship and understanding the intentionality behind those relationships that all involved will have a clearer understanding of where the individuals across the table are coming from. Once they can grasp this, they can begin to move forward and find a resolution.
--Carla Nicol Argueta (Franklin Park, IL)

Understanding risks

Coming to an agreement on an issue, whether it is where you are eating dinner, what movie you are going to watch or what time your group's next meeting will be, can sometimes require prolonged conversations to make everyone happy. The current dialog between the NFL and the NFL Players Association only has a little time to settle on their new collective bargaining agreement, and federal mediator George Cohen is providing the neutral source for both sides.

Last Friday Mr. Cohen facilitated extending negotiations for a week. This agreement helped move the conversation forward. As the mediator, Mr. Cohen needs to have both sides understand what their weaknesses are, and what the risks are if they fail to reach an agreement. This is tricky business. It is not likely that either side will get everything they want. Once both parties are clear on their intentions, it will take a conversation to adjust their commitments in order to come to a final agreement.

As the mediator, Mr. Cohen needs to bring the groups onto the same page by keeping each side cohesive, focused on their ultimate objective and willing to compromise in an effort to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. Once he is able to accomplish this, maybe choosing a restaurant for dinner or an evening movie won't be as challenging.
-- Jonathan Eisen (St. Louis, MO)

The following responses come from three fellows, from two different Coro 2011 classes around the country. Charles and Rayva are members of the Coro Pittsburgh class, and Galen is a member of the Coro San Francisco Class.

The Value of exclusion
Exclude them. Sources say that Cohen's success in promoting continued talks is a result of managing the number of voices in the room. CBSSports.com reports, "he has mostly kept the groups of union and owner representatives small. This has kept the anger and polarization to a minimum and encouraged dialogue." Practically speaking, including fewer representatives leads to fewer frustrated negotiators and facilitates a timely discussion. Have you ever tried to cut somebody off during a heated discussion? It is not easy and can often engender a resistant attitude.

Mediation, though, is not simply a matter of the number of voices, but of which voices are present. In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz acknowledges the value of excluding the most provocative voices when working towards compromise. He writes, "[Some parties] generate more disruption than can be contained effectively by...the network of cohesive bonds and authority relationships among members of the community."

Cohen must preserve these bonds and relationships of authority within the professional football community. He should do so by allowing the NFLPA and NFL representatives to exercise the authority they were selected to wield. While preserving neutrality, Cohen can limit the number of representatives from each side and thereby force the top leadership to represent their entire constituency--including the most uncompromising members. To frame this approach in a different light: Who would be more effective in negotiations with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker--state senators or angry protestors? - Charles Gamper

They're called 'anti-trust lawsuits' for a reason
Admittedly, I am not much of a sports enthusiast, nor can I say I have ever stopped to think about the inner-workings of sports teams. But in my time as a Coro Fellow, I have had many opportunities to explore consensus building among people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs. Applying my observations as both a consensus builder and a participant in the consensus-building process to the dispute between the NFL owners and professional football players, I believe that in order to be a successful mediator, George Cohen needs to first establish a foundation of trust and then proceed with an objective approach to problem-solving.

Building trust between opposing parties is a key component of conflict management. To do this, Cohen must listen to and encourage the opposing parties to strip away their egos, power and senses of entitlement to get to their underlying motivations and interests. Creating a basis of trust allows the mediator to understand the perspective that each side is coming from.

Once trust is established, Cohen must then deal with the problem dispassionately, employing logic and forward-thinking to drive results. The mediator must engage the parties in an integrative problem-solving approach, in which the parties find links between issues and craft innovative solutions, eventually reaching a shared perspective of the issues at hand.

If all else fails, Cohen can emphasize the serious implications for both NFL owners and pro-football players if the parties cannot successfully move beyond emotions and toward analytical problem solving and collaboration. By prolonging the issue, exposing the self-interest of disputing parties and potentially delaying the start of football season, the actions of both sides will adversely impact the trust of the most important stakeholders and revenue-generators in this situation--the fans. And from my experiences living in Pittsburgh for nearly a year, if there is anything you do not want to do, it is disappoint a Steelers fan. - Rayva Virginkar

The soft crash landing
Have you ever been in an argument with someone where you slowly realize that you're completely in the wrong and all of a sudden you need to find a graceful exit? I find myself in this situation VERY frequently. Be it with colleagues, friends or my girlfriend, I'll end up defending the indefensible. The stronger my sense of pride, the worse I end up sounding--for example, "but hedge funds are a good thing for the financial system because they add a lot of liquidity to the market." Unfortunately this is where NFL owners find themselves. George Cohen's job will be to find a place where the "uncompromising" owners can gracefully land and exit the argument without losing too much face. If Cohen pulls this off, he will be the greatest petty argument negotiator since Bill Clinton.

Consider the following three facts: The two highest-rated television events in American history were the last two Super Bowls. Most NFL salaries are not guaranteed (like they are in Major League baseball for example) even though the NFL is the most violent sport conceivable. There is an unending stream of studies highlighting the horrible brain injuries that plague players for the rest of their lives. Now remember that in an argument between millionaires and billionaires, the billionaires are complaining about not making enough money.

Cohen and the NFLPA should let the owners win one battle--limiting the amount of money rookies can make--then let the owners make a big deal about this victory and quietly leave the revenue sharing alone, give the players better medical benefits and keep the 16 game season. If George Cohen can negotiate this soft landing, let him step up to the microphone and scream "Are you ready for some football?" We could only be so lucky. - Galen Wilson

Return to all panel responses

By Coro Fellows

 |  March 8, 2011; 7:40 AM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Leadership requires balance and fairness | Next: How Cohen can influence the process


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The reality of the situation is that there will have to be give and take from both sides in order to reach a solution. As a mediator, Cohen has the tall task of reconciling disparate interests and keeping both sides mollified in the meantime. I agree with the panelists that one of his key roles is to present the bottom line interest of each party to the other, while emphasizing their shared interests and looking towards a mutually beneficial solution. But the proceedings can easily become inefficient and ambiguous if both sides do not clearly communicate their topmost priorities and requirements to each other, through a helpful mediator who will help reach a synthesis between the interests of both parties. Diplomacy is essential, and so is honest communication. Leadership through mediation requires these skills, as well as a gift for compromise and building trust between everyone involved, as the panelists stated above. Without these necessary components, negotiations will be slow, inefficient, and mired in suspicion.

Posted by: juliaretta | March 10, 2011 1:55 PM
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I agree with Chase that the primary thing George Cohen needs to do as a mediator, in order to bring the uncompromising members of both sides together to make a deal, is to demonstrate to both sides their end-goal. In other words, he needs to illustrate the things that each side agree with one another on and how they both ultimately want to achieve the same goals, some of those being a more productive, respected, and profitable League. By emphasizing the points in common and emphasizing the fact that if a deal is not reached neither side will achieve their goals and both sides will be in worse positions than when they began the collective bargaining process (because a stalemate will occur, thereby, for all active purposes, causing the game of football to temporarily cease to exist) Cohen can probably get the more stubborn members of each side to come together, cooperate, and make a deal.

Posted by: toribennette | March 9, 2011 5:43 PM
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it is easy to say that both sides need to find common ground. They already have that, it is in the players and owners best interest to avoid a strike or lock out. Galen hit the problem on the head. What Cohen needs to do is find a way to get both sides to keep their pride in check and not lose sight of their goal.

Posted by: lsb05 | March 9, 2011 3:24 PM
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It is easy to say the start of any negotiation should be to find common ground. They already have it, avoiding a lock out or strike is in both side's best interest. Galen hit it closer to home, Cohen needs to figure how to get both sides to keep their pride in check and not lose sight of their goal.

Posted by: lsb05 | March 9, 2011 3:22 PM
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Follow a new state's lead. Abolish the death penalty on both sides. Then get back to negotiations. Vick came out of prison and recovered as a great QB whether some liked it or not. Act like free men. Who plead innocent to the vice of intoxicated greed. Who have enough money to hire their own lawyers. Not court appointed.

Posted by: louisewilson1 | March 9, 2011 2:24 PM
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I agree with Charles, exclude them. All parties have an interest in continuing the league and they aren't acting like it. The leadership was selected for a reason, they should be responsible for making these decisions. Maybe excluding some voices will make the leadership step up the plate. Also, someone should remind them that with compromise, everyone can win.

Posted by: underlying | March 9, 2011 2:19 PM
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What is the value of the mediator in the first place? What prevents the us-and-them dichotomy from establishing their own framework for finding agreement? What would George Cohen's role be if he were directly affiliated with either of these two groups?

Obviously, there is the need for an objective overseer of a conflict. As Mary eluded to, a mediator possesses significant power, albeit informal power. However, in a situation where an outside mediator is not available, how can conflicting groups find mediation from 'within'?

Posted by: aliving | March 9, 2011 2:07 PM
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While I appreciate the insightful thoughts of the young panelists, it's clear that the editor(s) of this section don't understand the business and practical importance of BREVITY. Five posts was bad; eight is just unacceptable.

Please reduce the number of postings so this page is worth reading again.

Posted by: bystander1344 | March 9, 2011 12:41 PM
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I view both sides as entitled, greedy, and unsympathetic.

Let them play out their little drama, and if it comes to a lockout and no NFL season next year, so be it.

If that does happen, it's time for the fans to wield a little power. Boycotting games, $75 parking passes, sponsors, and licensed products would take care of the situation.

Maybe next time they negotiate if they are fighting over $9 million instead of $9 billion they won't act so smug.

Posted by: BEEPEE | March 9, 2011 1:16 AM
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Xin Li discusses a "commitment to constituencies." How can "constituents," in this situation, have their voices heard?

Posted by: TTR1 | March 8, 2011 4:23 PM
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There is an incorrect assumption that the players and the owners are on an equal playing field in terms of their negotiating positions. Based on TV contracts, the owners can still make money even if the players do not play. That shows that the owners are not really negotiating in good faith. So, before the mediator can work on respect or listening or all those other flowery things, the mediator needs to make sure that both sides really want to resolve the problem. With this much money at stake, I have a feeling they will all come around, even if it is only at the last minute.

Posted by: emg1011 | March 8, 2011 3:30 PM
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I think Mary's response really get's at the heart of the matter - finding common ground. It is essential that both sides see why it is absolutely crucial to come to a compromise for mutual benefit. The owners and the players must see that this is for 'our' benefit rather than 'my' benefit.

Posted by: farhanbanani | March 8, 2011 1:31 PM
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I think Mary's response really get's at the heart of the matter - finding common ground. It is essential that both sides see why it is absolutely crucial to come to a compromise for mutual benefit. The owners and the players must see that this is for 'our' benefit rather than 'my' benefit.

Posted by: farhanbanani | March 8, 2011 1:30 PM
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I think Mary's response really get's at the heart of the matter - finding common ground. It is essential that both sides see why it is absolutely crucial to come to a compromise for mutual benefit. The owners and the players must see that this is for 'our' benefit rather than 'my' benefit.

Posted by: farhanbanani | March 8, 2011 1:30 PM
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What are some examples that Cohen could potentially draw from in order to mediate the situation beyond philosophical rhetoric on compromise and finding the middle?

It's easier said than done.

Posted by: skepticLA | March 8, 2011 1:08 PM
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It sounds like Mary Gleich defines the job of a mediator as fostering "true listening" among all parties involved. If that is the case, what specific techniques could Cohen use to help all sides listen to each other better? It might be helpful to consider how these techniques could be applied, say, in Wisconsin.

Posted by: AnonSF | March 8, 2011 12:31 PM
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