Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > The art of diplomacy

The art of diplomacy

On my recent US trip I got to chatting on the plane with my neighbour on the subject of tact. Exploring some of the differences between the way Americans and Brits do business, he felt that we place too much emphasis on what he termed diplomacy, hence tact. Straight talking is the way to go, he said.

It’s an interesting point, but I’ve always worked on the basis that people are, thankfully, all different, so you work at a relationship and modify your style accordingly. This has worked for me over the years whether that relationship is private or business, and for the latter, whether it’s been with my boss, my team, my peers, supplier:customer or customer:supplier. I don’t claim to have always got it right first time, but I usually made it work.

Where there have been failures it has tended to be through a lack of clarity. This was one of the reasons why my new friend felt being diplomatic was wrong, that we just danced around the point whereas his approach went straight to it.

In theory that is all well and good, but in practice I’m not so sure. One of the arts of leadership, and something that is very effective in negotiation, is in getting someone to do what you want them to do, but because they think that they want to do it. Being direct will rarely get you your desired result in those circumstances, but a more tactful approach usually will.

The direct approach is also something that does not cross cultural boundaries too well either, and so is often wasted if used in international dealings. Where did diplomacy come from in the first place? It came through cross border dealings where reaching a compromise was often the way to peace and survival.

Compromise is also often a dirty word with those who like the direct approach. I’ve been on many teams where, when we’ve been discussing our approach to an upcoming negotiation, there have been people who have wanted to take a “no compromise” position. Well, there are two key problems with that way of working. The first is that you are leaving yourself with a limited position and, to a degree, painting yourself into a corner which you should never do. The second is that, if you succeed, all of the compromise falls onto the other party. Maybe that isn’t a problem in a one off deal, but it is not the way to be building long term relationships.

Using tact, taking a diplomatic approach and being prepared to reach compromise are not signs of weakness. They are the trademarks of someone who will make successful deals over a long period of time and who will also probably be an extremely good leader.

People who act like this get things done, build happy teams and they make deals that people are happy with. They establish that reputation and people want to work for and with them. They will not be regarded as a soft touch either, because no-one that generates that level of success over a period of time can ever be a soft touch. They just become respected players, and that is another good thing because they don’t let ego get in the way.

You may sometimes have to be direct, but don’t forget that it’s people that you have to work with to make things happen. Knowing how to work with people is therefore crucial to success. Tact and diplomacy will serve you well as tools, so learn how and when to use them.

Lead well and prosper.


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