Influencing by volunteering

In organizations, tasks often arise that no one really needs or wants to do. An agenda needs to be developed; a Google doc needs to be compiled; a memo needs to be written. If it doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s job description or fall squarely onto anyone’s plate, getting it done obviously requires someone to take the initiative.

Sometimes, someone volunteers—presumably out of goodwill or a desire to take this task rather than the next one. At least as often, though, a whole lot of people play musical chairs in hopes of quickly finding a seat. Even setting aside the goodwill or desire to avoid the next task, though, these opportunities offer an often overlooked opportunity to make life negotiable.

To see how, let’s take a brief walk through the world of negotiation research.

Taking such a walk, you’ll quickly encounter the first offer effect: the finding that the person who makes the first offer tends to better achieve their objectives. Dig deeper into the effect, and you’ll find that it’s grounded in one of the most robust findings in all of psychology: anchoring, or our tendency to make ambiguous judgments by focusing on whatever information happens to be before us at judgment-time. First offers matter because the second offerer uses them as a point-of-reference.

What in the world does this have to do with organizational tasks? Well, taking the initiative often amounts to making the first offer. In other words, avoiding the inclination to play musical chairs often allows you to put your own stamp on the agenda, the Google doc, the memo. Since somebody has to develop the agenda (which will inevitably influence the topics and their order), somebody has to compile the Google Doc (which will inevitably influence the facts considered and how), and somebody has to write the memo (which will inevitably influence its tone), it might as well be you. That way, you’ll claim at least some of the organizational influence so many people claim to eagerly covet.

Now, like any advice based on any decision-making bias (e.g., anchoring), you’ll have to use this one with extreme ethical caution. While it’s true that somebody has to do the stuff above, if you do it with devious intentions, you’ll not only curtail your influence—you’ll eliminate any semblance of goodwill. So don’t omit a key item from the agenda, key fact from the Google Doc, or key finding from the memo (for example).

And you’ll obviously have to be selective, volunteering for the tasks where you care rather than everything that crosses the transom.

Act ethically and choose selectively, though, and you may find your influence starting to wax. Because the fact remains that somebody has to do it. If you care about it and can find the time, it might as well be you.

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Declaring yourself a negotiation superhero—By considering your plan B

Worried about an upcoming negotiation? Dreading the back-and-forth? The fast ones your counterpart is sure to pull when you’re not looking? Well, don’t fear: here’s a research-based suggestion that can make negotiations negotiable: actively thinking about your BATNA.

I’ve repeatedly discussed the importance of BATNA: your Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement, or simply your Plan B. As noted by me and countless other negotiation researchers, having and knowing and improving your BATNA lets you walk away from an unproductive negotiation. Less appreciated, I think, is the way that actively thinking about your BATNA before a negotiation can steel you for some upcoming bargaining—at least when your BATNA is decently attractive.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re about to talk to a flooring contractor who is likely to quote you an unattractive price. Imagine further that you have another decent quote in-hand, and you’d like to get your flooring upgraded but really don’t need to. You detest negotiation in general—and especially with pushy salespeople. Accordingly, you’re dreading the upcoming interaction and secretly hoping he calls to cancel.

In this situation, most people are so consumed with worry that they simply forget about their BATNA. Somewhere in the back of their brains, they know that they can always walk away from an overly pushy contractor, but they don’t actively focus on the fact that this guy is just one minor blip in a long list of potential next steps.

But why not?

Why not stop, forget about the pushy contractor, and refocus on the fact that you don’t really need this guy’s flooring, or really any flooring at all? Thinking like that, you’ll realize that it’s the pushy contractor who should be nervous: It’s he who stands to lose a large chunk of change if you don’t like his proposal—he who’d better fear the formidable you and your ability to bolt. Thinking like that, you can confidently place your hands on your hips, puff out your chest, and declare yourself a negotiation superhero.

So the next time you’re fearing an upcoming negotiation, stop thinking about it! And refocus on the fact that you don’t really need it, that you have a plan B.

It’s a powerful strategy but comes with two obvious caveats: First, it obviously falls flat if your BATNA is bad. If your foot is falling through to the basement and all alternative quotes are unbearably expensive, it clearly won’t really help to consider them (though we often vastly overestimate the unattractiveness of our alternatives). Second, it’s not a great idea to keep thinking about your BATNA when the guy actually appears at your doorstep. Instead, as noted elsewhere, you should shift your attention toward your target when negotiating and only return to your BATNA at the end.

So let this be the beginning of the end of your negotiation fears! Our alternatives are often far better than we think, if we really think about them—and we should.

The sound of silence—or successful negotiation

What does a successful negotiator sound like? Maybe you never asked. But if you ask now, I know the answer. Someone loud, aggressive, and potentially angry—right?

Well, I just finished teaching an executive education course on cross-cultural negotiation, and it struck me that the most effective negotiators sounded nothing like that.

Since understanding what a successful negotiator sounds like can afford some insight into successful negotiation, thereby making life more negotiable, let me share some observations. In particular, let me tell you why the most successful negotiators sound surprisingly silent throughout the negotiation process:

  1. Before a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are wholly immersed in the preparation process. You might hear their pages turning or their keyboard clicking, but you won’t hear them clearing their throat and cracking their knuckles.
  2. At the start of a negotiation, the successful negotiator is quiet because they are listening rather than talking—processing all the overt and implicit messages their counterpart is sending rather than overwhelming them with rhetoric.
  3. In the middle of a negotiation, when the parties are exchanging offers, a successful negotiator is certainly making offers. But they are still surprisingly silent because they are trying to read the implicit messages buried in their counterpart’s concessions. If the counterpart concedes on issue A but not on issue B, does that mean B is more important? Only a silent negotiator would know.
  4. Toward the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they are being patient. They know they haven’t quite achieved their goals. They’ve put the pressure on their counterpart and made an aggressive yet mutually beneficial offer, and they have the gall to wait out their counterpart rather than fold in a crumple of weakness.
  5. At the end of a negotiation, a successful negotiator is quiet because they’re not there. They’ve stepped away to use ratification on their counterpart’s supposedly final offer, thereby amassing leverage. Or to negotiate a concurrent deal, thereby amassing power. Or to sleep on it, thereby amassing wisdom.

In honor of the recent Oscars, then, let me tell you that the best negotiators in real life sound nothing like the best negotiators in the movies—at least the talkies. The best negotiators fade into the background, silently analyzing their way to a fantastic deal.