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PRACTICE: Negotiating WISE wins with a powerful government agency

As told to Matt Golosinski, Kellogg World editor

Ed. note: This account was reported by a Kellogg School Class of 2005 graduate who wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

"It is almost impossible to hold a position of power over the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). My green card application had been repeatedly and inexplicably transferred from one office to another within INS for more than four years," said the Kellogg School graduate. Until employing the WISE threats strategy, the alum's efforts to accelerate the application process or even obtain an update were met with frustration. Through the use of WISE threats, however, this person created and leveraged various sources of power to secure a much-needed green card.

"To make progress on my case and understand the reason for the delay, I needed to determine the exact problem with my file," the graduate revealed. Unfortunately, the INS maintains an information advantage over applicants by withholding most information about an applicant's file and providing only the most rudimentary updates. "Realizing I needed to gain some leverage, I contacted the local U.S. senator's office. Since this senator's agenda included immigration reform, I knew I had a chance to build a coalition."

The Kellogg alum explained to the senator's assistant that if they could help the INS identify which office the file should go to, they could save the agency resources by letting the senator's office investigate the matter, rather than assigning the task to an already overworked INS officer.

The INS agreed.

The senator's office discovered that the agency had assigned the wrong tracking number to the graduate's file, resulting in it being matched with the wrong candidate. "By persuading the senator to engage the INS so that the agency perceived mutual gains, while also furthering my own agenda, I obtained my case information in two weeks, rather than the months it would otherwise have taken," recalled the alum.

Incidentally, the INS ended up eroding some of its informational advantage by providing a letter that explained and apologized for their mistake. Their error had cost the individual a two-year delay, and now represented a great source of negotiations power to expedite the file's processing.

"Any blatant and emotional threat, however, was going to prove ineffective," noted the alum. "To further my own interests, I needed to make a threat that was: not emotionally driven; did not incite a counter-threat that dwarfed mine; and did not cost me more than it cost the other side." The threat had to motivate, not punish, permitting the INS to save face, so my solution focused more on the positive outcomes of compliance and merely hinted at any negative consequences.

This person again engaged the senator's office to issue the threat, remaining somewhat insulated from negative consequences and coaching the senator's assistant on what to say taking into account the core elements of WISE threats. The script assumed this format: "Since the INS has realized that it has made a significant mistake with this client's case, I suggest that you assign the file to an officer immediately. This way the INS can show that it takes these matters seriously, which is contrary to popular belief. Additionally, if you do not assign the case to someone right away, the fingerprints and background checks that you performed on this client last year will expire and you will have to repeat that all over again." By being exact in the communication, the INS was made aware of the benefits of compliance and the potential negative consequences of non-compliance, thereby targeting their interests. "In the end, the strategy worked: The INS assigned my file to an officer immediately."

The negotiation concluded with a post-settlement settlement. Although the file had been assigned, it most likely only made to the bottom of an enormous pile. It could not hurt to request the file be moved to the top of that pile.

"Again utilizing the senator's office, I offered an additional incentive: if the INS liaison could expedite my file, I would write a personal letter of appreciation to the INS." This appealed to the liaison because the local INS office could demonstrate service improvement and it would also help the liaison personally by enhancing her image in the eyes of her superiors.

"Three days after this negotiation, my case was approved!"

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University