Capturing the attention of kids and executives alike

Anyone who works for an organization must at least occasionally negotiate with the people above them in the org chart. And anyone who does that knows that capturing and maintaining an executive’s attention is essential to negotiation success. What you might not know is that interactions with kids can highlight some important lessons about interactions with executives—lessons about attention that can make life more negotiable.

Consider the following examples about kids and attention, and whether they could better your organizational life:

  • Attracting attention: Perhaps you need to get a kid dressed for school, but they need to play with a million toys first. To accomplish your goal, you have to attract their attention. Likewise, at work, you might need to attract the attention of an executive in order to get your plans approved. With kids, mentioning what’s in it for them upfront (time to play before the bus?) can often help. How about executives?
  • Maintaining attention: You might need your kid to clean up the remnants of 23 intermingled puzzles, but the kid, having started the task, might discover the need to first assemble 22 of them. To accomplish your goal, you have to maintain their attention. Likewise, at work, you may have gotten a meeting scheduled with an executive, only to find the meeting punctuated by 14,000 emails and phone calls. Persistent repetition seems to be the only method with kids. Executives?
  • Directing attention: You might need your kid to focus on the fun part of the doctor’s appointment (the post-visit sticker) rather than the less fun part (the shot). Similarly, you might want an executive to focus on the more exciting parts of your proposal. While you can’t ignore either the shot or the duller parts of the proposal in good faith, you can order your statements in a way that generates excitement before trepidation or boredom. It works at least occasionally with kids. Executives?
  • Breaking attention: You might need a kid to pay less attention to a particular scene in a movie. What was that thing rated again? Similarly, at work, you might need an executive to stop pursuing a line of reasoning that you know to be wrong. Here are a variety of tips that may work with kids and executives alike.
  • Not calling attention in the first place: You might need to avoid talking about a social event that you know your kid would enjoy, but that you also know your kid’s schedule won’t allow them to attend. Likewise, at work, you might want to avoid a discussion of a report that you plan to start soon but just haven’t had the time to start yet. Initiating a discussion yourself and directing it down the right path can help at home. At work?

The bottom line is that attention is a great asset in negotiations (and in organizations generally). If we have a kid’s or executive’s attention, and it’s directed where we want it, we stand a better chance of achieving our goals. If we don’t have their attention or it’s focused elsewhere, our goals remain a distant dream.

How do you capture and maintain the attention of the people around you?

Negotiating with neighbors by planting the seeds of trust

If you’ve ever owned a house, you know that much of your happiness inside the house is attributable to people who live outside the house: namely, your neighbors. The fate of every homeowner is at least partially in the hands of their neighbors. Good neighbors—nice people who will work with you to resolve any neighborly issues—make you never want to leave a place. Bad neighbors? They make you want to call the moving company today.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to place all of your happiness in the fickle hands of fate? If you could exert at least some control over this particular corner of your life, thereby making it more negotiable? There is: by building a trusting relationship before you ever meet your neighbor at the negotiating table.

We all tend to think that negotiations start when you sit at a long mahogany table, casting a steely glare at your wily counterpart, sitting all the way at the other side. They don’t. First of all, and as I hope you’ve gathered from my posts, most negotiations don’t involve long mahogany tables; they happen every day whenever we depend on someone else. Second, and more relevant to the current post, negotiations start long before you start “negotiating,” or at least they should. Indeed, negotiations start when you become aware of someone who will eventually become your negotiation counterpart. Consequently, the best negotiators don’t wait for chairs or mahogany tables; they start building a trusting relationship as soon as they possibly can.

What does this have to do with your neighbors? Well, every homeowner eventually has to negotiate with their neighbors. Have you? From constructing new fences, to felling old trees, to mitigating noisy teenagers, to driving a piece of construction equipment across their yard, to borrowing a tool—opportunities or even necessities to negotiate abound. Your negotiation will go a lot better if you’ve planted the seeds of trust beforehand. And, by the way, getting along with your neighbors is the right thing to do.

For the purpose of this post, though, let’s focus on the initial, instrumental goal of planting the seeds of trust, in the interest of promoting a successful negotiation. Supposing that was your primary goal, how would you do it? Here are five tips for building trust before you even start negotiating, based on a paper Jeanne Brett, Amit Nandkeolyar, and I published in Harvard Business Review:

  1. Assume they’re trustworthy from the start. Even before you meet people, you can assume the best, the worst, or somewhere in between. If you immediately assume that best, that tends to start a reciprocal cycle of trust, as I’ve said before. I’d encourage everyone to at least give that assumption a try.
  2. Take their perspective. There is a lot you can glean about a person before you know anything about them. If they’ve been living next to a bunch of renters who didn’t take care of the house you now own, wouldn’t they be interested in hearing about your intentions to overhaul the place (not that this has happened to me)? Take a guess at what’s important to them, and frame the conversation with those interests in mind.
  3. Act consistently and reliably. People trust others whose behavior they can reliably anticipate. It’s amazing how much trust you can build by consistently taking in the trash can and never letting your lawn reach the length of the African savannah.
  4. Signal your trustworthiness. People also glean your trustworthiness from the signals you send—particularly any similarities you might choose to highlight or signs that you lead an upstanding life. So if you share a common (passionate to the point of obsessive) interest in the Baltimore Orioles, for example, make sure to mention that. If you have a respectable career, there’s no need to brag, but it wouldn’t hurt to signal your occupation as a sign of trustworthiness.
  5. Show a genuine interest. It’s amazing and sad at the same time, but the number of people who show a genuine interest in each other seems to plummet all the time. So even if you came in with the initial, instrumental goal of priming them for your major construction announcement, ditch that goal once you get to know them, and try to show a genuine interest in who they are what they’re all about.

As I suggested before making this list, it would be good to treat your neighbors well even if you never had to negotiate with them. But since you do, you might as well kill two birds with one stone.

How have you built trust with neighbors?

Will Trump be a good president? Wrong question.

Everyone who hasn’t already made up their mind is currently wondering whether Trump would make a good president. Despite the collective interest in this question, I submit that the election has raised another, equally fundamental question—and one that Trump himself should be even more concerned about: Is Trump a good businessman?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious. He has made billions and billions of dollars, which is billions and billions more than me or most other people. So, from a financial standpoint, the answer is an obvious and resounding yes.

And yet, I submit that the events of this election cycle have made it an important question to ask, if only because presidents have to do more than develop brilliant policies. They have to run what amounts to one of the biggest and most powerful organizations in the world.

So let’s ask the question. Let me simply present the following ten competencies, all of which any business school professor would say everyone who runs any organization must have. Have Trump’s behaviors on the campaign trail suggested he has them? You be the judge:

  1. Negotiating effectively. The best businesspeople find ways to not only claim value from others but create value that benefits their counterparts as well as themselves. Trump has certainly done the former, but has he done the latter? You be the judge.
  2. Listening to advisors. The best businesspeople know how to close their mouths and open their ears when trusted advisers speak. Has Trump shown a propensity to listen? Your call.
  3. Establishing clear roles and responsibilities. The best businesspeople make it crystal-clear what everyone in their organization is supposed to be doing, and how everyone’s role is distinguished from everyone else’s. What, if anything, do the well-documented turf battles in Trump’s organization say about his ability to draw up roles and responsibilities?
  4. Understanding and growing the customer base. The best businesspeople appeal to the largest and most diverse set group of customers, in this case voters. Has Trump?
  5. Building a strong financial base. The best businesspeople establish the strongest possible financial foundation for their organization, in this case the most extensive fundraising operation they can. Has Trump done that? You decide.
  6. Communicating clearly and consistently with the market. The best businesspeople develop a message and stick to it, whatever direction the wind blows or spirit moves. Has Trump been clear and/or consistent in his policy prescriptions?
  7. Communicating clearly and consistently within the organization. The best businesspeople also deploy their excellent communication skills within their organizations, e.g. by making sure that their employees always know exactly what they’re about to say and do. Has Trump?
  8. Forming mutually-beneficial partnerships. The best businesspeople identify people who could helpfully support one another, in this case people like Paul Ryan and John McCain. Has Trump effectively partnered with such parties? You be the judge.
  9. Promoting based on talent. The best businesspeople promote the best people as their closest advisors. They avoid the temptation of nepotism, trusting the people with the best ideas rather than the best name. Has Trump?
  10. Responding to market data. The best businesspeople make a course correction when the market indicates that things aren’t working. How responsive has Trump been to his poll numbers?

I put these questions to you because it’s important for each of us to answer for ourselves. And I put #10 last because it’s the one about which I personally feel most equivocal, the last few weeks having provided some indication that Trump is charting a course correction.

So what do you think? Is Trump a good businessman? Can he run a big organization, be it a business organization or a big public organization? If he becomes the president of our country, let us all hope so.

When the problem is not knowing the problem

We’ve all worked with someone and felt like nothing was working. No reply to emails, no answer to questions, no consideration of suggestions. What did you do? If you did something, it was probably to highlight the problem and discuss a prospective solution. And kudos to you, because confronting the problem can often make life more negotiable than ignoring it.

But wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to make life even more negotiable? Well, luckily there is: by discussing the problem and not just highlighting it. It’s a subtle point, but note that the approach I mentioned involved highlighting the problem; the discussion only started when we came to the solution. And that’s exactly how most of us deal with irritating colleagues, if we deal with them at all—by highlighting the problem, which we assume to be the real problem, then immediately discussing a way to solve it.

“You take forever to respond to my emails! You never respond to my questions! Have you ever heard my suggestions? Now what do you think we should do about it?”

The issue is that the problem gets noted (by you) but never discussed. And if the problem never gets discussed, it’s possible you got it wrong. And if you got the problem wrong, well, then the solution will probably be wrong too.

An example may help: Early in the morning, you often write important, time-sensitive emails to your colleague in another office. Your colleague, that slothful waste of space, never seems to reply until late in the day, well after the reply would’ve done you any good.

The standard approach: “You take forever to respond to my emails! Can you start responding within four hours?” To which your colleague, reluctant to fuel the conflict further, may well agree.

The issue: You assumed the issue was sloth, when in fact it was your coworker’s flexible schedule. She comes in at 11 and stays till 8. Having noted rather than discussed the problem, her schedule could come up but probably won’t. Instead, when she arrives at 11, she’ll probably race to reply to the emails you sent her at 7:30, fearful of the four-hour deadline. Thus racing, the quality of her information will probably suffer, as will the quality of whatever you intend to do with it.

A better approach: “I’ve noticed that I send several important emails about 7:30 am each day, and you reply about 4:30 pm. Can we talk about why?”

By posing that question rather than pointing at the obvious problem, you’ve suddenly made it much more likely to hear about the flex-work. “Oh, it’s because of my flexible schedule!” she might say. At which point, the two of you could work out a much more creative solution. Like you holding off on your emails until 11 am, then expecting a reply within the hour.

Here’s the bottom line: We all think negotiations are about finding the right solution. Negotiations are really about getting the problem right. If you do that, a workable solution will often appear out of nowhere—and it probably won’t be the solution you devised in the first place. If you don’t do that, well, then your initial solution will probably get implemented, which will rarely be optimal for anyone.

I leave you with a quote from no lesser of a mind than Einstein: “The formulation of a problem is often far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”