As January 2 looms ever nearer, leaders in Congress are feeling the pressure to make a deal before we go over the so-called fiscal cliff. The cliff represents budget cuts and tax increases that will automatically go into effect, as well as the economic and social turmoil that would result, if Congress and the President can’t come to a budget agreement.
There is a certain tension generated by the idea that the clock is ticking, and that, unless it can be stopped, doomsday is at hand. Propagating the belief that we’re at the eve of destruction and can avoid doomsday only by conscious action is a proven leadership tool. Bringing a situation to a head has an acknowledged place in negotiation theory, with a distinguished place in foreign diplomacy. For those who remember it, there is probably no better example of this than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This brinkmanship mindset, with the dramatic emphasis on the cliff, is one way that leaders, in frustration and desperation, use crisis as a way of forcing action. Often, it has the added benefit of giving negotiators political cover: They can legitimately say that they had no choice. Their actions may have been distasteful, and maybe they would not have been acceptable at another time, but this was different: “If we didn’t take action, then we would have gone over the cliff.” Or the bomb would have gone off.
Leaders who use brinkmanship have to be very careful. This tactic, if indeed it is a tactic, has to be used carefully and strategically. Misused, it can have precisely the consequences that everyone is working to avoid.
Before you use brinkmanship as a call to action or as a way to force a decision, keep the following in mind:
- Make sure there really is a cliff. People grow tired of the Chicken Little routine. The Mayan calendar ends on December 21, and so does humanity, allegedly. If you see and report on the impending doomsday too often, your leadership credibility will suffer.
- Do not bluff. Although bluffing is a negotiation tactic, it is not part of the brinkmanship strategy. In the do-or-die scenario, the cost of having your bluff called could be catastrophic. You may be forced to go over the cliff and live with the consequences.
- Be willing to compromise. Going to the brink means that the winner-take-all option is off the table. Once it is clear that everyone has something to lose, you as a leader must come to grips with your capacity to compromise creatively.
- Keep the collective interest in mind. For brinkmanship to be effective, you need the support of those who will be affected. It is critical that stakeholders and supporters do not see brinkmanship as a self-serving exercise in opportunism but rather an effort to solve a problem that negatively affects all parties.
- Avoid creating a panic. Hanging out too long at the end of the cliff without coming to a deal may create anxiety and panic. That can have the same result as going over the cliff. That is, you may unwittingly create a stampede that takes all parties over the edge.
- Don’t use brinkmanship on small issues. If something can be solved fairly easily and creates a win-win, don’t create a false crisis. That's not the way to the best outcome.