Hostage Negotiation and Project Management

So what does a project manager have in common with a terrorist negotiator? Well, if they’re both doing their jobs right, they’re driving specific behaviours from the people with whom they’re working. That’s right, a hostage negotiator’s job is to get a terrorist to act in a way that the negotiator wants them to. Do you think that works by coercion? Think again.

If the negotiator makes any move that the terrorist feels is threatening, he may kill a hostage. The stakes are ridiculously high.

As project managers, we have plans to which we want our people to adhere. To make sure this happens, we often use techniques like asking, demanding or threatening to get our way. These work to some extent, but really, we’re at the mercy of the people with whom we’re working. We get lulled into a sense of complacency though, because generally, team members want their jobs and recognize the hierarchy that the project manager represents.

The moment they decide what you want is less important than what they want, or what they can get away with…you’re hosed. Those techniques you might be used to wielding won’t help you anymore. And who’s held hostage? You are!

To prevent that from happening, let’s take a look at a model the FBI developed to drive specific behaviour from dangerous crazies. It’s called the Behaviour Change Stairway Model (or sometimes the Behaviour Influence Stairway Model) and it’s a valuable tool in the project manager’s arsenal.

Behaviour Change Stairway Model

The FBI’s Behaviour Change Stairway Model

What you’re looking at is a series of steps that lead a negotiator into the mind of the terrorist, such that the negotiator can drive specific behaviours.

It begins with active listening. This isn’t just regular listening. This is shaping a conversation to elicit as much relevant information as possible. I’ll talk more about this technique in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that the negotiator needs information to be able to move to the next step.

Those who know me know how much I pound on the need for empathy in a project management setting. Well, here’s a perfect reason why. As the negotiator acquires information–especially emotional information–about the terrorist’s state of mind, a connection develops between the two. The goal here is for the negotiator to put himself (or herself) in the terrorist’s shoes. That’s why the active listening is so important–the negotiator shapes the conversation with a very specific end in mind. He wants to inform this connection as much as possible.

Because it leads to the next step: rapport. Here the dynamic between the negotiator and terrorist begins to change. Instead of the terrorist doing all the talking, the negotiator is now able to try to relate to the terrorist. The end here is to create the beginnings of a relationship where the two are on equal, mutually respectful ground.

That ground is fertile soil. It’s here that the negotiator can begin to wield some influence over the terrorist. It’s very slow and methodical, but if the negotiator does their job right, he or she can begin to turn the mind of the terrorist towards the desired goal. It all leads to a specific behaviour that the negotiator wants to elicit.

And it couldn’t happen without the right steps.

If you’d like to learn more about the Behaviour Change Stairway Model, here’s a couple handy links with some great information.

I don’t see much by way of its application in a management context but quite honestly? This stuff is gold!

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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