Five reputations no negotiator wants

Many of our most important negotiations happen at work. We negotiate job offers, reconcile competing strategies, allocate limited funds. So it would really behoove us to understand the drivers of our success in such situations—the factors that will determine whether we walk away happy or sad.

If I asked you to name just one such factor, what would you say?

Chances are, you’d name a negotiation strategy. Aggressively insist on your demands! Persuasively plead your case! Creatively seek a solution! Or some other behavior to display in the negotiation itself.

While none of these answers is inherently wrong, I’d suggest that your success in a critical organizational negotiation is often determined long before the negotiation itself—in the many less-critical negotiations and non-negotiation situations that crystallize your reputation. Critical negotiations become substantially more negotiable, in other words, when you’ve developed the right reputation beforehand.

It’s easier to see what the right reputation is if you first consider the opposite—the type of reputation you really don’t want to bring into a critical organizational negotiation. At that point, you really don’t want to be known as the:

  1. Constant negotiator: We all know someone who negotiates every flipping, last thing. Why do I only get 10 pencils? I need at least 12! Do we really have to go Applebee’s? I’m really hankering for the Olive Garden. Constant negotiator is not the type of reputation you want to carry into your critical organizational negotiations, as everyone will think this important negotiations is just another in your never-ending string of demands.
  2. Selfish negotiator: We all know someone who, though they don’t necessarily negotiate everything, they approach every negotiation (and non-negotiation) with exactly one objective: themself. Would it cost three jobs to guarantee my 12-pencil minimum at all times? No matter, as long as I get my pencils. You obviously don’t want to develop this reputation either, as everyone will come into the critical negotiation ready for battle.
  3. Pushover negotiator: Conversely, kind of, we all know someone who never ever sticks up for themself. Want to reduce my pencil allocation by two pencils a month, ultimately leaving me with pens alone? No matter, I’ll just buy some pencils myself. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as everyone will approach the critical negotiation with the demeanor of Jaws in the presence of a bleeding beluga.
  4. Reactive negotiator: We all know someone who, despite the “manager” in their title, sits around and lets the world conquer them. They seem utterly incapable of steering the course of events, and they often respond bitterly when the world steers them. Oftentimes, they just fade into the background. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as someone else in the critical negotiation will steer the negotiation in their own direction before you have the chance to, well, react.
  5. Incoherent negotiator: We all know someone who can never seem to collect their thoughts. Their statements are jumbled, and their requests tend toward the internally inconsistent. Thought 1: We should all get more pencils! Thought 2: Management should really cut costs! Developing such a reputation may well keep the other party on their toes. But you’re unlikely to get what you want from a critical organizational negotiation, for the simple reason that neither you nor they has a clue what that is.

So if you shouldn’t cultivate any of these reputations before a critical negotiation, what type of reputation should you to develop? A reputation as someone who confidently negotiates when they have to, but only when they have to. And when they do, as someone who confidently or even insistently sticks up for their true needs but also gives in on their non-needs, particularly when the other side truly needs the opposite. And someone who doesn’t react to negotiations as they happen but leads the way, typically by initiating and coherently guiding the discussion.

Do all of that in the small situations before your critical organizational negotiation and, dollars to donuts, you’ll walk away with the critical outcome.

Negotiating by reminding: “We’re playing for the same team!”

Two people who work for the same organization should theoretically have the same goals. Some even define an organization that way—as a set of interdependent people working toward a set of common objectives. So when two people from the same organization meet in the same negotiation—a discussion about how to allocate resources, carve up a project, tackle a difficult problem—they might have differing information or perspectives, but they shouldn’t have differing ends.

Sadly, many people who work in organizations quickly realize that at least some of their colleagues—how shall I put this delicately—sure seem to. At least the occasional organizational colleague appears to bring dramatically different objectives to the same intra-organizational negotiation.

That being the case, it’s important to consider our response carefully. In particular, should we meet such colleagues with the same competitive response we’d deliver to a difficult outsider? Or does our common organizational membership call for a different approach? My experience teaching negotiators and observing such negotiations, coupled with insights from negotiation research, argue for the latter. In particular, I’ve observed that spending less time “negotiating” with difficult insiders and more time convincing or reminding them that you’re playing for the same team can make life negotiable.

Want to see so for yourself? Consider tabling your “negotiation” tactics and responding to a difficult insider by:

  1. Reminding them of the common goal: Sometimes people in organizations simply forget they’re working for the same organization. They get so hung up on their departmental or personal objectives that they forget the common source of their paychecks. If you encounter such a person, you might simply remind them that all of us here at Acme Corp., at some level, want to deliver the best widget. No guarantees this small step will move their needle—for many, it won’t—but occasionally a small nudge is all that’s needed to help people see and shed their more parochial objectives.
  2. Invoking a common enemy: If you can’t identify a common objective, you might at least happen upon a common “enemy.” Research suggests that even when people can’t rally around a common cause, they can sometimes rally around a common dislike, e.g., for a competitor their company consistently wants to best in the marketplace. This approach, while significantly less tasteful than the first, is probably better than not getting back on the same team at all.
  3. Identifying isolated points of agreement: If you can’t find a common goal or even a common enemy, well, your task is considerably harder. Still, you might be able to find an isolated point of agreement on a small issue, or at least on the process. Sure, you can’t understand why they’re focusing on the quarterly vs. the long-term implications of their budgetary recommendations, but can you perhaps identify a small budget-worthy project with both short- and long-term potential? Or at least agree that the budgeting process should be more data-driven and transparent? If Kennedy and Khrushchev could agree they didn’t want nuclear war—if Trump and Kim Jong-un could agree they wanted a photo op—I’ll bet you can. If so, and even if the agreement has little to do with the negotiation at hand, you might at least establish enough team spirit to tackle the negotiation later.

So here’s the point: The next time you negotiate with an organizational colleague with a vastly different objective, consider tabling the tendency to strong-arm them into submission. Instead, spend more time—even most of your time—reminding or convincing them that you play for the same team. Do that, and you’ll probably come up with a solution that will make the coach substantially prouder.

Offers you can’t refuse

Employees in organizations often get offers they can’t refuse. As in The Godfather, though, it’s not that the offers are enticing. It’s that the employees who receive them literally can’t refuse without suffering irreparable damage. They’d better accept that project assignment or stare down a pink slip. They’d better support that strategy or watch their career wither.

Since the offer recipient can’t say anything but yes, these situations can’t be negotiations, right? Well, sort of. Negotiation research as well as my own experience studying and working in organizations hints at a few strategies for making even these non-negotiable situations negotiable:

  1. Discuss the how: The fact that you can’t negotiate whether to support a particular strategy, for example, does not imply that you can’t negotiate how to do it. Would you be more comfortable working behind the scenes on the implementation details associated with that strategy than publicly proclaiming your support at town-halls? Or, if you have to proclaim your support, would you simply prefer to do so after filing your quarterly numbers and watching your workload level off? Even if you can’t negotiate the what, you can often negotiate the how.
  2. Ask for something different: The fact you can’t negotiate a particular offer does not imply that you can’t negotiate anything at all. Suppose you’ve really been wanting a better cubicle and then comes an offer you can’t refuse: take on a new project! But wait: Couldn’t this be your golden opportunity to accept the project even while requesting the cubicle? You wouldn’t necessarily have to do both at exactly the same time, but you could! What if the new cubicle also positioned you closer to the people you’ll work with on the project?
  3. Ask for something different in the future: Even if there’s nothing else to negotiate right now—or even if negotiating right now would be inappropriate—you can surely think of a few things you’ll need to negotiate in the future. Perhaps you know you’ll eventually need to request a raise, a virtual work arrangement, or the ability to reduce (or increase) your travel? At the time of the non-refusable offer, why not make a specific note (or at least a mental note) linking the offer to your future need? That’s not to say it will be necessary or appropriate to verbally reference the non-refusable offer when making the future request. It’s just to suggest that people who make requests (even non-refusable requests) of you right now may be more psychologically inclined to hear requests from you in the future.

Luckily, most of us don’t deal with Godfather-style gangsters at work. But many of us do deal with offers that, for a host of more mundane reasons, we can’t realistically refuse. Here’s hoping that seeing the negotiable elements of non-negotiable offers can make life, in general, more negotiable.

Anchoring indiscriminately: An ill-advised alternative to not offering at all

People commonly have one of two intuitions about whether to make the first offer in a negotiation. Many people’s intuition is simple: Don’t. Wait to hear what the other side says and try to learn from it. While appropriate in certain situations, this approach has major problems that I and others have detailed before.

But today, let’s explore the other common intuition about first offers. The more brazen among us tend to assume the opposite: Always move first. Always drop an aggressive anchor that will force the other side to play on your home turf. To that point, haven’t we all worked with someone who anchors indiscriminately on everything—who always suggests allocating themself the most staff, biggest budget, or smallest amount of work?

We’ve all worked with someone like that.

And so we should all know that this approach is just as ill-advised as the first—all but certain to make life non-negotiable. Since many people haven’t gotten the memo, though, let’s consider a few serious downsides of this strategy in the workplace. To all those who consider anchoring indiscriminately a wise tactic, consider the risks that:

  1. You’ll develop a reputation: Perhaps the biggest risk of anchoring indiscriminately is that everyone will associate your name with the tactic. When I mention the person who asks for the most staff, biggest budget, or least work, you’ll personally pop into everyone’s brain. And if the image sticks in their mind, they’ll probably start…
  2. Using the same tactic on you: If it was just you anchoring indiscriminately, the tactic might work. But there’s a whole world of savvy or at least cynical and battle-scarred negotiators who, observing you anchoring indiscriminately, might start anchoring just as indiscriminately against you in all future confrontations. And an ongoing war of indiscriminate anchors is not gonna end well. Alternatively…
  3. They’ll walk away: A deal anchored around your hopes and desires is great as long as it happens. But research suggests it may not if the recipient is offended by your offer. Instead, they’ll get mad and march away. This is not a justification for not moving first in an isolated situation, but it’s a consideration when considering whether to anchor indiscriminately, as those who detect the tactic are likely to get offended more easily and often.
  4. You’ll have to live with yourself: If you happen to work at a particularly pliable organization, you might get lucky and find others assenting to all your indiscriminate requests. But then you’ll have to live with an accumulating mass of guilt associated with a series of unnecessary requests, if not a groundswell of derision from your colleagues.
  5. You’ll lose touch with your real priorities: Less appreciated but no less important is the risk that you’ll get so fixated on anchoring indiscriminately that you’ll forget to consider your real priorities. In the process of dropping anchors wherever you can—and often it’s the quantifiable stuff like staff numbers, dollar amounts, and time commitments—you’ll forget to consider whether those issues matter most in a given situation. And since the qualitative stuff often matters more, you’ll miss the opportunity to anchor where it counts.

So if both anchoring indiscriminately and avoiding anchors entirely are problematic, what would I advise? Choosing your anchors carefully: identifying the negotiations that matter most and the issues that matter most within them, and anchoring unabashedly on those. But also identifying the less critical negotiations and less consequential issues and demonstrating the willingness to be a team player. Here’s to anchoring intelligently rather than indiscriminately!

When and why to pick your battles: The hidden connection to logrolling

We’ve all heard the hackneyed organizational advice to “pick your battles.” But there are two interrelated and semi-obvious problems with this (and much other) advice: No one can clearly say when or why it applies.

Luckily, negotiation research has something indirectly but highly relevant to say about picking your battles. Since understanding what it is can make organizational life negotiable, let’s unravel these cryptic comments further.

The negotiation literature has not, to my knowledge, directly investigated picking your battles. But it has often investigated the negotiation strategy of logrolling, in which you make a concession on a relatively trivial issue if (and only if) your counterpart concedes on something of critical importance to you. You accept the silly financing plan if the dealer gives you the coveted discount. You agree to work on the task you secretly sorta like if your coworker relieves you of something onerous.

As you might suspect from the examples, the ability to effectively logroll is central to the ability to effectively negotiate in general. The logic is simple: It’s often considerably more satisfying to get everything you want on a really important issue (and nothing on something trivial) than is to get half of what you wanted on both.

Now what (in the world) does this have to do with picking your battles? Quite a lot, actually. Because what does it mean to pick your battles if not to let someone have their way on an issue that doesn’t really rock your world (but might rock theirs), in expectation that you’ll demand your way on a future issue capable of making your own world shudder? Put like that, the connection to logrolling is obvious: picking your battles is simply logrolling spread over time—conceding on the unimportant issues of the present in exchange for someone else’s concessions on the critical issues of the future.

If you buy the analogy, then you should find it easier to detect the situations when the advice really applies: when you’re dealing with an issue that’s trivial to you and critical to them, as well as a person you expect to depend on in the future. (If any of these conditions don’t apply, battle away!) Additionally, you should find it easier to motivate your own battle-picking since you can now see the benefits looming down the line. Most importantly, you should increasingly find yourself waging and winning the critical battles at work rather than belaboring and losing the continuous war.

The five real meanings of “I can’t do that”

It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.

But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:

  1. I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
  2. I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
  3. I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
  4. I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
  5. I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.

 The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.

What’s so hard about negotiating in organizations?

Negotiations in organizations have a tendency to go wrong. Requests for an exception get denied, proposals for the future get rejected, solutions to a problem get parked in the perpetual parking lot.

But why do so many of us find intra-organizational negotiating so hard? Put differently, is there something special about organizations that makes negotiations inside of them so difficult, or do difficulties like these simply reflect the difficulty of negotiating in general—the same types of challenges you’d face at the car dealer?

Having studied negotiation for 13 years and worked in organizations for longer, I’d suggest it’s the former. That is, I’d highlight a few special features of organizations that make negotiating within them a unique challenge. But luckily, knowing what they are can make organizational life more negotiable.

Consider five of the presumably most common reasons why negotiations in organizations fall flat. Specifically, imagine yourself making a particular request of your superiors. The request is likely to get rejected if it:

  1. Creates a perceived inequity: I recently noted how bosses who adopt a win-win mindset with their employees (e.g., by granting a special exception) sometimes create a win-lose inequity for the employees who don’t receive the exception. Well, the flip-side is that your win-win suggestion may do just that. To mitigate the issue, perhaps take the boss’s perspective before making the request?
  2. Doesn’t garner enough attention: It’s hard to redirect senior executives’ limited attention to anything outside the never-ending press of daily emergencies—especially unusual requests requiring less-than-immediate action. Add their limited attention to the risks of the telephone game, and you’ve got a recipe for inaction or outright rejection. To mitigate the issue, perhaps find a way to make your request especially vivid or enlist the help of someone who can call it to the executives’ repeated attention?
  3. Sets a bad precedent: One way for a boss to avoid creating inequity is to grant your request and then grant the same to everyone else. But what would the organization look like if everyone enjoyed the same privilege—the same three days of virtual work, personally crafted benefits plan, or personally reimagined expense policy? If mass chaos would ensue, a wise boss is unlikely to grant your request. To mitigate the issue, perhaps imagine what the organization would look like beforehand (applying something like the categorical imperative)?
  4. Calls a bad parallel to mind: Any experienced boss has heard every manner of request from employees. And inevitably, some of the granted requests have subsequently turned sour. Someone abused their virtual work, someone extracted crazy benefits and quickly quit, someone tried to get reimbursed for something you wouldn’t even purchase. If you’re unlucky enough to surface a request that calls such experiences to mind, you’ve got a tough slog ahead. The best I can suggest is stepping away to regroup, then reframing your request in starkly different terms than anyone’s ever requested before.
  5. Gets stuck in organizational inertia: Organizations show massive inertia—marching methodically down well-trodden paths oriented around well-established policies and procedures. If your request somehow cuts against the inertia or, worse yet, threatens to disrupt it, good luck! But perhaps your fundamental need could be accommodated within the confines of the existing policies and procedures?

In sum, on the basis of issues like these, I think it’s fair to say that negotiators face particular challenges in organizations. But hopefully an awareness of these challenges, coupled with the tentative suggestions above, provides at least the contours of a roadmap for diffusing intra-organizational challenges. Good luck!