Do you see your glass as half-full or half-empty? If you see it as half-empty then you probably have a scarcity mindset.

Scarcity mindset and its opposite, abundance mindset, were terms first used by Steven Covey in his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Published in 1989 it has been a major source for self-help and leadership development which, among other things, warns us of the dangers of scarcity mindset.

Salespeople and politicians have known for a long time that scarcity is a powerful motivator and source of influence in negotiation. The less there is of something (or the likelihood of it) the more valuable it is and the more people want it. It applies not only to things but also to our emotions and sense of identity. At the heart of it is fear.

Ahead of the EU Referendum, remain and leave politicians used scarcity to persuade voters. The remainers argued that leaving the EU would disconnect us from our closest trading partners and result in a calamitous lack of confidence in the economy. The leavers (even though often referring to the remain campaign as “project fear”) maintained that staying in the EU would escalate a diminishing power to govern ourselves and control our borders.

What scarcity does is to direct the mind toward unfulfilled needs (whether real or perceived). In the leave campaign the idea of control caught the attention of voters who placed self-determination high on their agenda. The remain campaign planted isolation in the minds of voters who placed a high value on social and economic inclusion.

While scarcity mindset and politics are old friends, is it the mindset for negotiators to have going into the EU Brexit negotiations?

Undoubtedly, too much scarcity mindset can be limiting. It can raise anxiety levels, bring about unnecessary tensions and lead us to distrust others, placing emphasis on competition rather than collaboration. It can also lead us to inflate the value of immediate benefits at the expense of future ones and undermine confidence that problems can be worked through and solved even when the outcome is uncertain.

But scarcity mindset is not all bad. After all, it is one of the brain’s many mechanisms of trying to protect us from actual or potential danger. It helps us to prioritise our choices and to create concrete goals when dealing with pressing needs. The pressure of a deadline, for example, focuses our attention on making decisions or using what we have most effectively. In negotiation, scarcity forces trade-off thinking and enables us to look at the opportunity cost of spending on one thing rather than another.

For the EU Brexit negotiations negotiators will need a balance of scarcity and abundance mindsets. Before the negotiations start, each negotiation team will need to have answered two basic questions. What do you really want and what are you willing to pay to get it, economically and politically? In answering those questions scarcity mindset has a role to play. Once the negotiations start, that mindset will need to be kept in check so it does not stifle discussion or undermine investment in maintaining relationships.


Andy Grossman is an Architect, Mediator and a Director for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).