What I learned about negotiation from Keith Murnighan (1948-2016)

On Friday, the world lost a legend. While that statement certainly applies to Muhammad Ali, I don’t mean Ali. I mean an academic legend, Keith Murnighan: my advisor, colleague, and friend—and a man beloved by all who knew him.

Nothing I write could sufficiently honor Keith’s life or fill the hole left by his passing. But in the spirit of my postings on negotiation, and as one small way of honoring his memory, I thought I’d describe the top five things he taught me about negotiation—not through his research but from the way he lived his life. I primarily write to offer a glimpse into the incredible person that Keith was and the incredible way he comported himself. If his approach also offers a few insights into negotiation, so much the better:

  1. Trust more rather than less: In a world brimming with distrust, Keith was a countervailing force. He believed that assuming the best about others was not only benevolent but wise, as it could produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, he often entrusted his students with the most important responsibilities on a research project, not because he wanted to lighten his own load but because he wanted to bring out our best. And usually he did. Keith understood the negotiation principle that people who err on the side of trust tend to create more value for everyone.
  2. Set the highest aspirations: Academia is a tough slog. Sometimes—maybe most times—nothing goes right. Experiments flop, p-values aren’t quite significant, caustic rejections pile up. In the face of such pressures, the temptation—especially as PhD students—was to view our own abilities and ideas in increasingly negative terms, settling for academic mediocrity. Anathema to Keith: he insisted that he and his students set the highest possible bar. And grasping for that bar was the only thing that prevented us from falling off of it. Keith understood the negotiation principle that people who lose sight of the stars are forced to settle for the floor.
  3. Negotiate widely: I’ve never met someone who could collaborate so effectively with so many people, including at least one Nobel laureate. He knew that the most successful people don’t bury themselves in a hole or a small social circle. They collaborate far and wide. Keith understood the negotiation principle that those who collaborate broadly create new and unimagined possibilities.
  4. Be giving: In academic circles, Keith’s open-door policy is nothing short of legendary. Even when a quick glimpse of his inbox revealed unread messages as far as the eye could see, he always had time for YOU—and by you, I mean anybody. And his generosity was lost on no one. Every day, people wanted to collaborate with him. Every year, students lined up to work with him. When he got sick, so many people asked him for updates that he had to create a blog to keep up with the questions—and he was not exactly the blogging type. Keith understood the negotiation principle that people who act generously spark a cycle of reciprocity.
  5. There’s no justification for bad behavior: When revising a paper, I once asked Keith how we should respond to a reviewer who questioned whether deception was unethical. “We just tell them it is,” he said. When asked what principle of human behavior most surprised him, he once said: “That people can justify anything.” The two responses are related: By no means a moral absolutist, Keith was unafraid of admitting that there are moral absolutes—and that we all know what they are, except when we just violated them ourselves. Keith understood the negotiation principle that nothing is worth the price of your conscience, even if it seems so at the time.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Keith taught me so much more, about negotiation and otherwise. But hopefully it offers a flavor of the amazing person he was—and will remain in our memories.

Keith, we miss you. You made life more negotiable while you were here. And it will certainly be less negotiable now that you’re gone. But we’ll try our best to negotiate life’s challenges without you, as you surely would’ve wanted.

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One thought on “What I learned about negotiation from Keith Murnighan (1948-2016)

  1. Pingback: Getting the most out of your contractor | Brian Gunia

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