Learning from 4 Year-Olds

Published: Feb 12 , 2015
Author: Stephen White


A recent TV documentary (The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds) gave a fascinating insight into the way grown-ups work. The film makers fitted out a kindergarten classroom with hidden cameras, and then put a group of 4 year olds into the classroom to interact with each other, under the supervision of two expert teachers, and secretly watched by a group of child psychologists.

Having identified some of the personality traits of the children, they were split into two groups and invited to build a pretend house out of cardboard boxes and then decorate it. The groups were pre-selected; one had the more dominant children in it, and one had the less dominant. They were told that the team which built the better house would be declared winners. Both groups attacked the project with enthusiasm to start with. But the enthusiasm soon gave way to bickering and an eventual loss of interest amongst the dominant group, as each member vied for supremacy. They failed to work as a team and the result was that no house was built. Meanwhile the members of the less dominant group quietly got on with the job, worked well together, made a really good effort and won the prize.

Negotiators often feel that being alpha male (or its female equivalent) is an advantage, because their behaviour seizes the initiative and often scares less assertive counterparties into submission. Perhaps that is right, but in most negotiations negotiators find that they have to adapt their personality in order to perform as members of one team. A recipe for disaster follows when the team is made up of a number of dominant negotiators. 

Such a situation is brewing in the negotiations about to take place between the new Greek government and the European Troika. Both sides (teams) are bursting with egos. On the Greek side Mr Tsipras, the Prime Minister, and Mr Varoufakis, the Finance Minister, believe they have interpreted the anti-austerity negotiating strategy perfectly, although their interpretations seem to be different and subject to change (will they or won’t they negotiate?). And on the European Troika side the idea that Mr Junckers, Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi will put their personalities aside and work as a team stretches credulity, never mind the additional influence of Mrs Merkel and other European leaders.

Perhaps they need to spend some more time around a group of 4 year olds.

Stephen White

photo credit: little engineer via photopin (license)


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About the author:

Stephen White
My background is sales and marketing. I read Law at University and worked for 2 major packaging companies for 13 years in sales and sales management. I joined John McMillan and Scotwork in 1984. For the next 25 years together with our colleagues we delivered training and consulting, built the global business and developed the Scotwork product portfolio.

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Who is Going to Pick the Fruit?

It’s amazing how many people go into negotiations with no clear idea about their bottom line. “We’ll see how it goes,” seems to be the rather naïve thought and of course they leave themselves open to the risk of a really poor and unprofitable deal at the end of it. It is empowering to know your bottom line, especially when you have internal agreement at senior level. Think about it: the other side are aggressively demanding that you improve your terms, but you know that what they are asking for is beyond your bottom line.

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