Whatever your religion or spiritual beliefs (if any), the Bible contains a myriad of teachable lessons. One such lesson, taught in Exodus, is how not to negotiate.
Since a former Foreign Secretary has now advised the United Kingdom to adopt the Moses Model in Brexit negotiations, it might be useful to deconstruct precisely why and how the Egyptian Prince turned Prophet turned Worst Desert Tour Guide Ever bungled his negotiations with Ol’ Pharaoh.
For those unfamiliar with it, the story of Exodus is basically thus:
The Jewish people were one of the nations enslaved and used as a workforce by Egypt. Moses, a Jewish child set to float down a river by his mother and adopted into the Egyptian Royal Family, was approached directly by God (who in his own books gets to be the omniscient and omnipotent, just like I do when I write myself into my own Harry Potter fan-fiction) to address the situation.
Moses proceeds to make meet with the Egyptian leader and demand the release of his people through a cunning carrot and stick strategy, where the stick is 10 plagues of increasing horribleness and the carrot being, “Hey, have you seen how scary my stick is?”
At no point does he modulate his request, seek any kind of compromise or even re-frame his key ask in a way to make it more politically palatable to his audience. He was the negotiating equivalent of the guy who texts you ‘u up?’ every night for 3 months until you change your phone and move to Alaska.
Moses’ approach predictably leads to no progress whatsoever for almost a dozen negotiating rounds, until God commits literal nationwide infanticide and Pharaoh reluctantly acquiesces to Moses’ demands… Only to reverse this decision within 24 hours and set his army on them. This necessitates yet more divine magic, including an innovative approach to crossing large borders of water the UK’s freight operators are probably looking at pretty closely right now.
But the Jews got out, how is that a failed negotiation?
First, let’s begin with a basic principle for negotiating students: If you have to threaten the other side with the Angel of Death going door to door murdering their children, you may be out on the fringes of good negotiating practice.
Second, consider the actual objectives of Moses’ negotiation. The God of the Bible clearly had the power to simply teleport the Jews to safety or have the entirety of the Egyptian armed forces fall asleep for a week while the Jews moonwalked out of Egypt (possibly nicking a Sphinx on the way). That’s not the route God chose.
Instead, God tasked his Chief Negotiator Moses with a mandate to secure Jewish egress from Egypt via a negotiated outcome, ideally one that minimized suffering on all sides. Moses spectacularly failed to deliver on this.
Not only did God have to resort to wild animals and famine, but to biological warfare (boils), meteorological warfare (hail), and causing a major ecological disaster (turning the Nile to blood can’t be like… good for the environment).
Third, when Moses did finally secure movement from Pharaoh on the Egyptian king’s key red line of, “shut up, go away, and get back to work” the agreement they forged was broken by Egypt within hours.
So, what were his mistakes?
Overall, Moses negotiating style demonstrated an almost total lack of creativity, an over reliance on threats and a lack of forethought toward implementation. Let’s break the problem down a bit.
Moses had a pretty straight forward red line in these negotiations. He could not conclude a deal without an agreement for the Jewish people to leave Egypt unmolested.
Pharaoh’s position was more complex.
He was understandably concerned about the economic impact represented by a loss of a numerically significant labor force.
From a national reputation point of view, he was likely concerned about establishing a precedent.
Third, from a religious standpoint, he did not want to offer a tacit admission that the Gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their faithful from the wrath of another deity.
Despite having unprecedented access to a being of literal omnipotence, Moses failed to make any effort to accommodate any of the Egyptian concerns. Moreover, one could argue his every negotiating round entrenched the Egyptian position and degraded trust.
Lesson 1: Sticks can rebound - Remember the optics
The last thing you want as a negotiator is to raise the political cost for your opponent of saying ‘yes.’ This is as true of Moses as it is of Trump Tweets mid-negotiation which promise imminent capitulation by the weak kneed leaders of the people his team are trying to work with.
Every additional plague unleashed by God following a failed negotiation attempt by Moses only made it harder for Pharaoh to say ‘yes’ without conceding the powerlessness of his own Gods and signalling that Egypt, a regional hegemon, can be terrified into submission by some hail and a bunch of frogs.
You always want to leave your counter-party the ability to call the outcome a ‘win.’ “We gave them what they wanted and they agreed to stop smiting us,” is not a line which earns much applause domestically.
Lesson 2: Talk about their interests, not yours
It’s very difficult to convince someone to do something by exclusively talking about how much you want it. At no point, beyond issuing threats, did Moses attempt to present arguments for the release of the Jewish people from slavery being in the interests of the Egyptians.
Where, I ask you, was the well crafted and research supported study attesting to the superior productivity of a properly remunerated workforce with the liberty to pursue fields of genuine interest?
Where was the offer to have God whip up some modernized construction practices to decrease Egyptian over-reliance on menial labor in pyramid construction?
It was less of a discussion between governments and more of a hostage negotiation. Those don’t tend to end happy.
Lesson 3: Domestic implementation is king
The ‘outcome document’ of the Moses-Pharaoh negotiations appears to consist of five spoken sentences muttered at Moses and Aaron one night by a grieving father:
By contrast, the draft Withdrawal Agreement outlining the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union is 599 pages long and includes a separate political declaration. Why? Because stuff is complicated and the details matter.
Without having carefully thought through how the agreement you’re trying to reach is going to work in practice, you’re leaving a huge amount up to the discretion of the implementing parties. Even in tightly worded deals, the scope for variance in implementation can be vast, and Moses appears to have made no effort to work through the detail of how Exodus from Egypt would work in practice. This brings us to…
Lesson 4: Engage at all levels
It’s legitimate to note that a meeting at Government Leader to Prophet of God level is not the appropriate place to really hammer out the finer points like herd watering rights or how red sea boat rental. That’s why negotiating teams don’t exclusively consist of Presidents and Prime Ministers.
The Egyptian State was nothing if not bureaucratic and officious. Where was the working level engagement from Moses’ team on issues of critical importance but too technical in nature to tackle at the central ‘Let my people go!’ table?
By retaining all negotiating power for himself and not delegating even minor issues to subordinates, Moses ultimately delivered an agreement in principle but not in practice.
Lesson 5: If there’s trust lacking, spell out effective enforcement
Most negotiated outcomes don’t come with particularly kinetic enforcement mechanisms, relying instead on trust, mutual benefit and good relations for continued compliance by all sides. In this case, Pharaoh didn’t trust Moses, the departure of the Israelites was not a mutually beneficial outcome, and having just had his son murdered to create negotiating coin, he probably took a dim view of Egypt-Israel relations.
As the subsequent deployment of the Egyptian military proved, the agreement as written did not have sufficient enforcement mechanisms, soft or hard, to maintain Egyptian compliance. Had Moses taken the time to hammer out a proper ‘Wrath of God’ Dispute Settlement Mechanism chapter which clearly explained the watery sanctions which would answer Egyptian non-compliance, perhaps the following day’s stress and loss of life could have been avoided?
In many ways, the talks between Moses and Pharaoh were emblematic of how blowhards think a negotiation should run.
Conducted almost exclusively leader to leader. This doesn’t actually work, but it does allow modern Churchill wannabes to picture themselves as the ‘Great Men’ shaping history;
Negotiated exclusively with threats, and bereft of any attempt to find compromise or middle ground. Again, this is largely ineffective but does feed a mythos of ‘Toughness’;
Focused exclusively on the big picture, without due regard for the detail required to make even a shared vision work in practice;
If you’re going to negotiate something, you can’t go wrong by doing the exact opposite of what Moses would do at pretty much every turn. Good luck!
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