Learning to love deadlines

Oh, deadlines…even the word stresses us out. Whether it’s the last minute to submit the meeting minutes or the last day to sign up for daycare, the prospect of an approaching cliff challenges even the calmest to remain calm.

Yet, wisely imposed deadlines can make life substantially more negotiable. To illustrate, consider three big benefits of deadlines in negotiations:

  1. Deadlines focus the mind: The deadline effect indicates that deadlines, not timelines, indicate when negotiators get serious. In other words, whether you’re negotiating for two hours or two days, the most productive part of the negotiation may well happen in the last two minutes. That’s because deadlines focus the mind, raising the costs of delay for both sides and leading both sides to say what they probably should’ve been saying the whole time. The bottom line? If your negotiation has a deadline—if you’ve both booked flights at 2 on Tuesday, for example—savor the deadline rather than sweating it. And definitely don’t change your flight! Your collective deadline is likely to make everyone’s life more efficient.
  2. Deadlines are contagious: Another important feature of the deadline effect is that one party’s deadline becomes both parties’ deadline. If you’re really going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight, losing your ability to negotiate any further—and if the other side knows that—well, then the other side effectively turns into a pumpkin at midnight too. Since they can’t accomplish anything without you, they really have no choice but to finish by the time you say. The bottom line? If you really have a deadline, make really sure your counterpart knows it.
  3. Deadlines are tactics: Sometimes negotiations are going approximately nowhere. Both sides’ intransigence is generating universal frustration. In that case, you might consider imposing a deadline yourself. Knowing that deadlines contagiously focus the mind (and that you could probably fudge your own deadline if you had to), an imposed deadline will probably generate the stress necessary to get your counterpart talking, if not yourself. Of course, use this tool with extreme caution, as you lose credibility if your deadline passes and you keep on negotiating. And you lose the whole deal if your deadline proves a bit too aggressive.

And so it is that one of the most feared words in the English language—deadline—has a rather positive connotation in negotiation. Bottom line: Don’t shy away from the deadline, but embrace it and impose it as required.

Have you ever imposed a deadline to move a process forward?

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