Meetings devouring your life? Contingency contracts to the rescue

It’s a common organizational problem—probably one of the MOST common: the proliferation of long meetings and inability to get anything else done. Here as in other areas, however, negotiation research can help. Indeed, I suspect a negotiation concept called contingency contracts might actually make many meetings—and thus much of organizational life—more negotiable.

There are really two interrelated problems with meetings: their number and their length. Let’s deal with the second, and specifically with the fact that it seems like many meetings should really last about half as long. The problem, of course, is convincing our colleagues: WE know our meetings don’t need to last that long, but the people around us are just as sure they do. For example, we’re certain a discussion of the company’s new widget strategy requires no more than 30 minutes, but the widget strategizer thinks we’ll certainly need an hour.

How do many people respond? By scheduling an hour-long meeting in the interest of avoiding unnecessary conflict and wishing on their lucky stars that it takes less. But of course, it never does.

So consider an alternate strategy: What if you said to the widget strategizer, “Widget strategizer, you think we need an hour, and I suspect we need a half-hour. I don’t know which one of us is right, but what if we scheduled a half-hour right now and then regrouped for an additional 30 minutes later if necessary?”

And then, what about scheduling the initial meeting such that you and—even better—the widget strategizer have a hard stop after a half-hour?

Assuming your initial estimate was accurate, I think you’ll miraculously see the widget strategy requiring no more than 30 minutes of discussion.

What does this example have to do with negotiation? The basic situation is all too common in negotiations: Two negotiators are deadlocked on their differing expectations of the future. A wholesaler thinks a holiday sweater is going to sell like hotcakes—a retailer’s not so sure. A used car dealer is sure the aging transmission is just fine—the buyer’s dubious.

When negotiators get stuck on differing expectations of the future, they usually fight and quite often impasse. But negotiation research and theory urges them to sign what’s called a contingency contract—a bet about the future—instead. They agree that if the retailer doesn’t sell 15,000 sweaters by December 31st or the transmission dies within a year, for example, the wholesaler or car dealer pay a rebate. If the sweaters sell like hotcakes or the transmission runs just fine, the retailer or car buyer pay a surcharge. The nice thing about such agreements is that, assuming no one’s bluffing, everyone thinks they’re right at the outset. They’re not, and the winner will eventually shine through, but their universal confidence makes a deal possible now.

Although your meeting proposal doesn’t involve rebates or surcharges—it’s more about time than money—time IS money in organizations, and the structure of the deal is quite similar. As in negotiations, contingencies contracts can make our organizational meetings more negotiable.

Of course, contingencies contracts aren’t a cure-all. In negotiations, for example, you wouldn’t want to reach such an agreement with a used car dealer who will move his entire operation to an undisclosed location after selling you a clunker. And in an organizational setting, you wouldn’t want to make such an arrangement with someone who has the supervisory right to tell you how long to sit in a room, or someone who knows a great deal more than you do about widget strategizing.

Still, bets about the future are not always seedy arrangements confined to the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, they can make your negotiations and meetings more negotiable. Give it a try—I bet you’ll agree!

What should we expect from a negotiation?

What type of outcomes should we expect from a negotiation? Since decades of research suggest our answer dictates both the behaviors we’ll display and the deals we’ll reach, it’s critical to answer carefully. In particular, I’d argue that calibrating our expectations appropriately is one of the most important waystations on the road to more negotiable negotiations.

To call the right type of expectations for negotiation into relief, let’s first consider three common but inappropriate expectations negotiators bring to the bargaining table. It’s typically inappropriate to go into negotiations expecting to get:

  1. Everything in the entire world. The most aggressive among us (and apparently most members of Congress) go into negotiations assuming it’s appropriate to expect everything in the entire world. That is, they assume they should get literally everything they want on all issues—or at least they talk that way. That’s not only inappropriate—it’s silly. As we all learned in kindergarten if not before, we can’t have our way on everything all the time. Assuming we can in a negotiation is sure to produce an impasse or worse.
  2. Nothing in the world. Conversely, the meekest negotiators go into negotiations assuming they won’t get and don’t actually deserve anything at all. Rather, they somehow assume their dominant counterparts’ most unreasonable whims and aggressions—the car dealer’s outrageous sticker price, the bank’s ridiculous fees, the cable company’s unbelievable markups—must be justifiable somehow. Beyond the reality that expecting nothing is going to get us just that much, this expectation is inappropriate because it makes inappropriate expectation #1 appropriate for your counterpart. And if you’re actually negotiating with that counterpart—if they need your cooperation just as you need theirs—it’s not.
  3. Half of everything we each request. If expecting everything and nothing are equally inappropriate, doesn’t it follow that expecting half of what we each request is wise? No, for the simple reason that we and our counterparts tend to value the issues differently. There are some things we absolutely need from a deal—all-wheel-drive to handle those icy roads, a job that allows for some virtual work—and there are some things we don’t. And of course, the same is true for our counterparts. If we simply take the average between our random demands and theirs, we’ll end up with more than we need on some issues and less than we need on others—as will they. It’s woefully inefficient for everyone. And that’s the problem with an overly simplistic view of compromise in general: it leaves everyone unhappy.

So what should we actually expect from a negotiation? Everything we really need. We should (and in fact must) go into a negotiation expecting to achieve our true needs—lest we guarantee ourselves a set of unmet needs. But note that everything we really need is not the same as everything in the entire world, nor none of it, nor half of whatever we and they happen to ask for. It’s everything we want on our most important issues, often in exchange for everything they want on theirs (i.e., an integrative tradeoff).

In sum, many negotiators set their sights too high by expecting everything in the world, too low by expecting nothing, and too inefficiently by expecting half of whatever everyone happens to request. So the next time you go into a negotiation, make sure you’ve differentiated what you really need from what you really don’t, then committed yourself to getting all of the former—and nothing more or less.