Beware To Teachers’ Negotiators

Larry Price
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Wednesday - December 02, 2009
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It seems like we have situation in which the Hawaii State Teachers Association feels it has a stronger negotiating position than the government’s, and is on the verge of a great victory. A word to the wise: Beware the “Winner’s Curse.”

The truth is that neither side is doing very well. The state has no money with which to negotiate, so what they were doing in the meetings last week was just that - meeting an opportunity to get back instructional days in the classroom.

It was almost comical to hear HSTA announce that it would give up planning days “only if the teachers were paid for them.” It could be that the HSTA negotiators expect the Legislature to perform some sort of magic and find enough money to buy back 27 furlough days at $5 million a day. This could be an expression of extreme over-confidence on the part of the negotiators to believe they have the ability to correct a poor agreement.

In these types of situations, the law of small numbers applies to the way negotiators extrapolate from their won experience. In this case, that experience is limited. If HSTA’s prior negotiations had been “cakewalks,” the tendency would be to extrapolate that prior experience onto present day negotiations. In point of fact, HSTA has not had solid integrative negotiations in years, and is acting like it was expecting a hard distributive effort. It’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Said another way, HSTA does not have a “hot hand.” It is a fallacy. It doesn’t have any momentum, and it appears it will continue on its course. It’s probably easier to understand what’s going on to believe their behavior is being caused by external factors, such as the looming gubernatorial election. It has been a self-serving bias of the local media to underestimate the causal role of these situational and external factors.

Unfortunately, these boring furlough negotiations have become personal. There is enough blame to go around, but if you have one side attributing its behavior to situational factors (budget deficit) and another attributing other behaviors to personal factors (political parties and hidden agendas), things are not likely to improve.

Read what the two parties are saying about each other: If we screwed up, it’s bad luck (someone else’s fault).

If you mess up, it’s your fault.

Recent research has shown that these self-serving biases influence perceptions of fairness in a negotiation context (Gelfand and Nishii, Domingues, Murakami, Yamaguchi; 2002). In this interesting research relative to Japanese subjects, there is convincing evidence that Americans tend to hold egocentric, sometimes distorted perceptions of fairness. More important, the findings revealed a link between self-serving fairness biases and negotiations outcomes. The results showed that in those situations, there were fewer agreements reached.

Does this sound like Democrats vs. Republicans?

If consensus information is available, like the presence of an arbitration panel, their findings are usually expressed in numerical probabilities (e.g. one chance in 100 the economy will recover and provide additional revenue to fund union demands). More often than not, the observers will ignore that kind of information.

If that happens, it will lead to faulty judgments and the probability of a successful outcome. We’ll soon find out, because their ruling is expected soon. To those who have an inflated estimation of reaching a good deal, it might be a good idea to crunch the numbers again. The public is not in the mood for union, political or other biased intrusions on the challenges facing both parties during the holiday season.

But beware of what you ask for. It may come back to haunt you in the upcoming elections.

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