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Microsoft and Yahoo: Where were the mediators?

They help countries and couples. Why not businesses?

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When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer met with Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang earlier this month, what kept them from making a deal? With Microsoft offering $33 per share for Yahoo's stock, and Yahoo willing to take $37, was there truly an unbridgeable gulf? The $4 gap seems trivial in comparison to the potential value of the deal. So did Microsoft and Yahoo walk away from a deal that would have made both sides better off? This type of bargaining failure is hardly rare – businesspeople frequently report deals that have come within inches of closing, only to slip away at the last moment, costing their companies plenty.

In the world of litigation, settlement gaps are routinely bridged with the help of mediators. In the world of foreign policy, mediation – sometimes called "shuttle diplomacy" – is used extensively to resolve conflict. Why, then, are business transactions rarely mediated?

One theory is that the functions that mediators perform are already handled by transactional lawyers and investment bankers who work hard – and are handsomely rewarded – to close deals. The problem with this theory is that the lawyers and investment bankers often approach the negotiation from a partisan perspective in order to prove their loyalty to their respective clients.

A more promising explanation is that when conflicts arise – as in a potential hostile takeover situation such as the Microsoft-Yahoo negotiations – the parties reject compromise because they see the world through a distorted lens. Conflict can cause "reactive devaluation" (a negative assessment of a proposal because it comes from an opponent). Neuroscientists tell us that conflict triggers some of our most primitive reactions – a fight-or-flight response – as opposed to the collaborative impulse required for dealmaking.

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