Don’t ask why! Negotiate with someone else.

Those of us who work in organizations—by which, I mean most of us—at least occasionally get responses we don’t like. That expense is not reimbursable; that laptop is not available; that TPS report is not acceptable without its cover sheet. It’s a fact: our organizations’ policies don’t always agree with our priorities. Although we probably can’t hope to rewrite the policies, there’s at least one thing we can do to make our post-response lives more negotiable: don’t negotiate with other people who can’t change the policies either.

It sounds simple—and it is. If the expected outcome of a negotiation with the person who delivered the annoying news is the same as the annoying news itself, why waste the time discussing it? Worse yet, if the expected outcome is the same annoying news plus an annoyed person on the other end, why risk the additional and spreading annoyance? And yet, nearly everyone’s temptation in the wake of some unpleasant news is to negotiate with the person who delivered it:

  • Dear finance department, WHY isn’t that expense reimbursable?
  • Dear IT department, WHY isn’t that laptop available?
  • Dear TPS department, WHY is that cover sheet so essential?

This response is understandable in light of the seeming silliness of certain organizational policies. And it’s consistent with my previous advice to ask why. But it’s still not the best response for an embarrassingly obvious reason: the person who delivers such news is usually not the same person who created the policy or has any ability to amend it. So initiating an immediate negotiation is not only fruitless; it’s also likely to prompt irritation that turns the messenger against you the next time a similar policy needs enforcement.

Making life negotiable, then, requires a polite thank you, followed by a careful assessment of the relevant organizational policy and the person or group who created it. Perhaps this assessment, combined with the passage of time, will reveal that a delayed negotiation is just as fruitless an immediate negotiation. Is the TPS report worth the CEO’s time? Or maybe it will reveal that a negotiation would actually help. But with the benefit of some contemplation, you’ll now negotiate with a deep understanding of the policy and a real decision-maker across the table.

Have you ever negotiated with the bearer of bad news, only to realize you should’ve been negotiating with someone else?

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