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Getting Personal With the Greek Crisis

BERLIN – Today’s decision-makers are supposed to embrace the virtues of big data, relentlessly pursue quantitative metrics, and then adhere to the optimal course of action that these powerful tools supposedly indicate. Yet if there is one thing that the Greek crisis has made clear, it is the importance of the human factor in negotiations. People and their personalities, and the way they perceive one another, can make small debts seem unserviceable or large debts disappear with a handshake.

In a world that feels increasingly unstable, many seek reassurance in the illusion of certainty that data provide. We want it in our journalism. We want it in our investment decisions. We even want gadgets that count our every step and heartbeat. We want to bring our wellbeing and our future fully under our control.

But the Greek financial crisis serves as a reminder that life is not governed by data alone. In the end, outcomes may – and often do – depend on the amorphous yet essential qualities of integrity, trustworthiness, and interpersonal “chemistry.”

The importance of such factors was no less clear in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Whereas partisan grandstanding and nationalist posturing in the Greek negotiations have eroded confidence in the entire European project, the negotiators on the Iran deal overcame an even deeper trust gap. With arguably more at stake, and despite the involvement of more players with overlapping and, at times, antagonistic agendas, entrusting the process to professional diplomats, rather than elected politicians, clearly paid off.