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Marty Linsky
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Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Helping both sides manage loss

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?

What is holding back resolution in the NFL dispute is not the argument about the benefits to each side of various options. Everyone involved knows all the arguments. They can make them compellingly for either side. The resistance to a new NFL contract comes from the threat or reality of loss.

Leadership is about the distribution and management of loss. That is Cohen's challenge. The losses may be concrete, such as money or power. Or they may be simply a function of clarifying priorities, which means that some "priorities" will be sacrificed in favor of what is most important.

Both the owners' and the players' negotiating teams have constituencies, including some militant elements, which will have to be reckoned with if they give up too much of what they are hoping for. Each of these teams includes folks who could get fired if they are seen to have 'compromised'.

There is no win-win here.

Cohen must identify the inevitable, or at least likely, losses on each side if an agreement is to be reached, and then work with each negotiating team to see what they can do to mitigate or compensate for the other side's losses. Each loss, whether material or in the form of an abandoned priority, will differentially affect factions in each side's constituency. Figuring out which subgroups will be taking the biggest hit and what can be done to ameliorate the loss and/or help them though it is the mediator's work if an agreement is to be reached.

Cohen must use his considerable skills to assist each side in addressing their own leadership work, helping them figure out how to disappoint their own people at a rate they can absorb.

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By Marty Linsky

 |  March 9, 2011; 12:00 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Separating egos from the issue | Next: Cooler heads prevail

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There definitely is no good solution to this problem. The role of the mediator in this instance is not to seek a solution that will benefit both parties, but rather to seek to compromise so that neither party clearly wins and neither party clearly loses. Striking a balance between the two is tough, and requires that both parties are willing to concede to some extent. George Cohen must use his skills as a negotiator to persuade both sides that conceding a small amount would benefit the NFL in the long run. Changing the mindset of both parties is a difficult task to accomplish, but can be achieved through the strong leadership and persuasive skills that Cohen possesses.

Posted by: paulgabraham | March 11, 2011 12:26 PM
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