Hostage negotiation skills 'good for business'

George Kohlrieser George Kohlrieser worked with the US police to try to reduce homicide rates

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Kidnapping is rarely out of the headlines.

Recently, French President Francois Hollande publicly urged kidnappers to free hostages held in the Sahel region in western Africa.

In October, following eight months of negotiations, a Greek-owned ship and its crew of 21, who had been held hostage by Somali pirates, were released after the payment of a ransom thought to be millions of dollars.

The kind of bargaining required to achieve the release of hostages is strenuous and needs thorough training.

But according to George Kohlrieser, a former hostage negotiator for the US police, that training may also hold lessons for less deadly situations in the world of business and management.

He says an employee has to be cool-headed and persuasive when talking to their boss - especially when discussing something like an increase in salary.

Caring is the key

Currently living in Switzerland, where he is a professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Prof Kohlrieser has himself been taken hostage - once in an emergency room, once in his office, and twice in someone's home.

"I was doing specialised work with the police, trying to reduce the homicide rate in homes," he says.

He explains that the key thing in those situations is to show a certain amount of caring.

Start Quote

It is easy to understand hostage situations when you have a weapon to you body, a knife to your throat, or a gun to your head”

End Quote George Kohlrieser IMD Business School

"The fact that a negotiator can show caring, even to a hostage-taker, allows the brain to shut down and be able to engage in problem solving and opportunity finding," he says.

"A person who has taken a hostage has always been motivated by loss, and if you understand that loss and what they anticipate, you then have power to influence them."

Prof Kohlrieser says you have to get into the mind of the hostage-taker and create an emotional connection.

"The act of showing interest or concern triggers in the brain the desire to co-operate and collaborate," he says.

He points out that some situations are more dangerous, for example, when someone is trying to commit suicide by being shot by a police officer, or when they see no hope.

"The brain wants to avoid pain and the hostage-taker is just creating more pain or looking for a way out of that pain and our goal is to get them to see some other options," Prof Kohlrieser says.

Speaking of the first time he was taken hostage himself, he says it took him 30 minutes to bring the situation under control after asking the hostage taker how he wanted his children to remember him.

"He screamed, 'I don't want to talk about my children,' but that was the first response I got from him and I persisted until I finally got the change of mind and he realised he really did love his children."

Knowing the needs

Prof Kohlrieser takes the experience of what happens in those deadly scenarios into everyday situations that might be encountered at work whenever negotiations are required.

"It is easy to understand hostage situations when you have a weapon to you body, a knife to your throat, or a gun to your head," he says.

"However, most people are taken hostage without a weapon. They feel helpless to a boss, to a colleague, to a situation, to a team, or in personal life, so the principles used in hostage negotiations are applicable in other situations."

Hands tied behind a back Somali pirates look upon hostage-taking as a lucrative business - until they get caught

It is difficult to equate negotiating with someone wanting to kill you, and asking your boss for a pay rise.

"When you negotiate a pay rise you first of all have to know what the needs of the boss are - is it a fair thing, are you being reasonable, and can you create a relationship and help him understand why you think you deserve that bonus or pay increase?" Prof Kohlrieser says.

He says leaders have to be caring, and if you are dealing with a boss who is not caring then there are problems.

"If your boss is able to engage in that caring process, then you can take risks."

However, he adds that about 80% of people do not trust their boss and it is crucial to think in terms of what is fair for the whole organisation or group.

"When people think something is fair, they are going to create a more positive mindset, and research shows that when those people are motivated by intrinsic values such as learning something, contributing to the team, doing something, whatever it might be, to make the world a better place, they are going to be the high performers," he says.

"Most leaders are using manipulative threats or coercive tactics to get people to perform at a higher level and intrinsic motivations like bonuses and money do not produce a sustained performance," he adds.

"It is the caring attitude of the boss which induces engagement and produces that sense of commitment which transfers to increased productivity and better customer service."

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