Two is greater than one—especially in negotiation!

On the job, countless situations call for a proposal: A customer requests an estimate. A colleague calls for a counter-proposal about the subdivision of a project. A boss asks for a suggested reconfiguration of your time to accommodate a new responsibility.

In these situations, most people do exactly what was requested: make a proposal. And that’s logical! You’re just following directions. Still, there’s a better way to respond—a response that can make life more negotiable for you and the other person alike: making two proposals rather than one. Let me tell you what I’m talking about and explain why two, in negotiation, is substantially greater than one.

Imagine your boss asked you to assume a major new responsibility. Recognizing that this will totally upend your job and prevent you from accomplishing your current responsibilities, the boss further requested a proposal indicating how you’ll now allocate your time. The logical approach would be to think about it and simply provide a proposal.

But compare that to thinking about it and providing two proposals, each slightly different but both just about as attractive to you. One of the two indicates you can get the new thing done while accomplishing 25% of your previous job. The other indicates you can get the new thing done and manage to complete 40% of your previous job if only you were allowed to work from home twice a week and save a bunch of time super-commuting. Truth be told, you consider the two proposals equally attractive.

Now, compare the two-proposal approach to the single-proposal approach that just seemed logical. Which is better?

Surprisingly, negotiation research on “Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers” or “MESOs”—which is exactly what your two proposals are—would suggest the former. But why? Why are two more complicated proposals better than one that just follows directions? For at least five reasons:

  1. Flexibility: True, your two proposals didn’t exactly follow your boss’s instructions to the T. But negotiation research would suggest that the boss will prefer them nevertheless because they seem more flexible. You are conveying the willingness to solve the boss’s problem in multiple ways, not just one.
  2. Anchoring: Ironically, at the same time you demonstrate flexibility, you also focus your boss’s attention on your own preferred solutions to the problem. And you actually do that twice, not just once.
  3. Information sharing: Through your two proposals, you’ve communicated something important about your own preferences, namely that you want to work from home more often and could be more productive if you did. It would be harder to convey that quite so clearly with just the one proposal, whichever it was.
  4. Information receiving: By hearing which of the two proposals your boss prefers, you learn something vitally important about your boss’s preferences, namely how he or she feels about virtual work. Over and above any potential benefits of the actual ability to work from home, it might be nice to how your boss feels about this critical issue.
  5. Efficiency and satisfaction: The two-proposal approach tends to bring the two parties to a quicker and more satisfying resolution. Had you stuck slavishly to the boss’s directions, you might’ve battled it out over one issue, probably the exact percentage reduction in your current responsibilities. At a minimum, you or they might’ve walked away unhappy, never a good outcome in a hierarchical relationship.

So, am I telling you to flaunt your boss’s specific requests? Of course not. I’m simply saying that, whenever there’s room to respond to a request with two proposals rather than one, you’ll usually find two to be much greater than one.

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