Who does what? Navigating our continuous negotiations at work

When most people hear “negotiation,” they think of buying a car, buying a house, or demanding a raise. But those negotiations only happen occasionally. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that other, more mundane negotiations are far more common—and potentially far more important.

Indeed, there’s one such negotiation that most employed individuals face daily, if not hourly, potentially making it their most common negotiation: Any guesses what it is?

Yep: Determining exactly who will do what in organizations. Many of us negotiate the specific terms of our employment continuously—with our coworkers , employees, superiors, and others. Sure, our employment contract specifies the overall contours of our job. But does it specify who will write what proportion of a report, who will take responsibility for a task that spans several people’s jobs, or who will go the extra mile when everyone else has gone the bare minimum? Since working our way through such situations can make our working lives more negotiable, let’s consider how to handle them.

But first, let’s consider why they’re negotiations at all: Negotiations are simply situations in which interdependent people with differing interests work through their interdependence. Considering that definition, it’s clear as day why our discussions about who does what are negotiations: The members of organizations are highly interdependent, especially when they find themselves on the same team. But everyone brings a personal agenda or at least a departmental or subgroup agenda to any particular task. So discussions about who does what are negotiations through-and-through.

So how to deal with them? As a first cut, I would offer the following three, research-based suggestions:

  1. Lay your interests bare. Despite the above comments about divergent agendas, most people unwittingly assume the agendas of people who work for the same organization are more-or-less aligned. But we all know the phrase about assuming, and here it applies in spades. It’s exceedingly rare for everyone’s agenda to totally align, so the first and most basic suggestion is ensuring that each individual is as aboveboard as possible as to their personal and or subgroup objectives—in hopes of identifying a way to align them.
  2. Pay it forward. Most negotiations over who does what are not one-time occurrences. They’re small nodes in long-term relationships replete with repeated negotiations. Unless you’re working with a real rogue—someone who will take advantage of your every smidgeon of generosity—I’d recommend erring on the side of taking more responsibility now in expectation of goodwill and long-term reciprocity.
  3. Negotiate roles, not tasks: A common but misguided approach to negotiations over who does what is to divide the task equally. Three-person team writing a report? Why not have each person write 1/3 of it? Because that will produce an utterly incoherent report. A far better approach is to define the roles needed to produce a compelling report (e.g., researcher, writer, editor) and negotiate their assignment.

In sum, negotiations are not just the pivotal, occasional moment when we make a big purchase or receive a big job offer. They’re the mundane and nearly continuous moments when we work out the terms of our interdependence in the workplace. Treating these situations as negotiations and managing them strategically goes a long way towards making work negotiable.

Should I ask for more? Three clues you might want to negotiate

One of the toughest negotiation challenges is deciding whether to negotiate at all—whether to settle for a particular portion of our own lot or launch into a negotiation to obtain more. Should I press the car dealer for a bigger discount, my colleague for an alternate meeting time, or my kids to try harder on their math homework?

In my never-ending quest to make life negotiable, though, let me offer three simple clues that, at least in combination, suggest it might be worth negotiating rather than settling.

You might want to consider negotiating if:

  1. The current outcome stinks: Most obviously, a negotiation might be warranted if you’re exasperated with the current situation. You’re peeved at the car dealer’s exorbitant offer. Your colleague’s refusal to do their job sends smoke out your ears. If the current arrangement stinks, you might consider negotiating. Importantly, though, this rule should not prompt you to negotiate everything. If you’re just a little bit inconvenienced by the current situation, you should at least check the remaining criteria before negotiating, lest you turn into one of those people who negotiates everything and thus alienates everyone.
  2. You don’t know the other side’s preferences: Assuming you’re dissatisfied with the current arrangement and have an alternative arrangement in mind, you should consider whether you have any idea how your counterpart would react to the alternative. Sometimes, we know well enough: We all know the car dealer would resist a further discount and our coworker would resist any task requiring even a modicum of effort. But in many of life’s negotiable situations, we actually have no clue: We’d really prefer to meet tomorrow but don’t know the other person’s availability. We’d really prefer our favorite restaurant to another night of meatloaf, but we haven’t assessed our spouse’s thoughts on dining out. If you’re dissatisfied with the status quo and don’t know your counterpart’s feelings about the alternative, you might consider negotiating.
  3. The costs of negotiation are low: Sometimes, the costs of further negotiations are extraordinary. As a totally random and made-up example, another day of pointlessly stonewalling will cost 800,000 employees and legions of contractors another round of paychecks and possibly send the U.S economy to the brink of recession. But in many of our more mundane situations, a bit more negotiating costs us nothing in money and a negligible amount of time. Is it really so costly to give the other contractor one more day to reply to our email, or visit the other Chevy dealer down the road? In comparison to the price of whatever we’re buying, probably not.

Ultimately, deciding whether to negotiate versus sit on our laurels requires a great deal of judgment. But hopefully these three clues help you home in on the situations most rife for a deal.

The best-kept secrets of non-leader negotiators

My last post discussed how organizational leaders negotiate. But a nettlesome fact remains: Many of us are not leaders! We find ourselves farther down the food chain, sometimes much farther.

So a nettlesome question remains: How can non-leaders negotiate?

Since the practices of the most effective non-leader negotiators can make many people’s lives negotiable, let’s consider five of their best-kept secrets:

  1. Dropping subtle hints and popping subtle questions: Meetings to make important decisions are often populated by leaders and non-leaders alike. Sure, the non-leaders’ primary role may be to take notes or make sure the meeting ends on-time. But the most effective non-leader negotiators identify at least the occasional opportunity to drop a subtle hint or ask a subtle question about the subject matter—hints and questions that often redirect the conversation or surface a surprisingly glaring concern.
  2. Being polite: In a world of shockingly impolite people, unadulterated and unexpected politeness acquires immense value. Simply and consistently approaching leaders with a smile and an authentic interest in how they’re doing and what they’re worrying about goes an awfully long way when leaders need a sounding board—particularly a sounding board who has not been required to drink the Kool-Aid by virtue of their leadership position.
  3. Developing powerful allies: Contrary to popular perceptions of negotiation, there’s no rule requiring the best negotiators to fly solo, singlehandedly crushing a piteous counterpart into a pulp. The most effective non-leader negotiators know that all-too-well, and they don’t even try to fly solo. They identify powerful allies who have the organizational leverage to represent their point-of-view—and, more importantly, the willingness to.
  4. Maintaining strict neutrality: Ironically in light of the last point, the most effective non-leader negotiators also pull a Switzerland. Even as they develop allies to stick up for them when it counts, they don’t take a side among competing factions or become a pawn in somebody else’s game of thrones. Sitting at the bar after work, with everyone liquored up and gossiping about the people in the other faction, they chortle but resist the temptation to contribute another caustic comment. Sure, they won’t have nearly as much fun at the bar. But they’ll build a bedrock of trust with both factions, whichever one wins.
  5. Being more prepared: Non-leaders rarely have more organizational power than leaders. But they do tend to have more of another critical resource: time. Sure, no one has much time. But the average non-leader does have more of by comparison. And the most effective non-leader negotiators leverage their comparative advantage to the full, spending their additional time preparing for meetings and decisions in excruciating detail. Simply by commanding the facts, they tend to direct the conversation.

So how do the most effective non-leaders negotiate? As in the case of like leaders, little like we imagine. Subtly, quietly, and slowly counteracting their subordinate role, they accumulate the social capital needed to lead anyway.

What are some other best practices of non-leader negotiators? Join the conversation by leaving a comment!

How do leaders negotiate? Little like we imagine

When most people think of negotiations, they think of brief meetings in which two people angle toward an eventual decision. Which price? What features? How many days of vacation? Whatever the specifics, an intense discussion increasingly narrows the gap between the demands made by two parties, who ultimately make a decision.

But anyone who leads a team / department / organization knows that the bulk of their negotiations—or at least their most important negotiations—don’t look anything like that. Since recognizing the features of the negotiations leaders really face can make leading negotiable, let’s unpack what those negotiations look like.

First, many leaders’ real negotiations don’t involve a brief discussion or immediate decision. Instead, they involve glacial progress toward a distant and almost indiscernible goal. Rather than sitting down at one table and hammering out all the issues of concern, a leader who wants to change an important organizational procedure (for example) will probably sit down at dozens or hundreds or thousands of tables over the course of weeks or months or years. Rather than narrowing the gap with a single counterpart, the leader will have to slowly appease all the stakeholders wedded to the current procedure or simply incapable of imagining anything else. The common picture of negotiation is unhelpful because it prompts us to become incredibly impatient with a process that necessarily takes time.

Second, and relatedly, many leaders’ real negotiations don’t involve linear progress toward a goal—or anything remotely like it. Instead of steadily narrowing the gap between their preferences and someone else’s, a leader who wants to pursue a new strategy (for example) will probably win a key colleague’s support one day, then learn there’s absolutely no budget to support it the next. The common picture of negotiation is unhelpful because it leads us to misconstrue such setbacks as negotiation failures instead of necessary bumps on the road to negotiation prowess.

Third, many leaders’ real negotiations don’t really involve decisions at all. Rather than trumpeting the benefits of a new organizational culture and letting stakeholders decide whether to accept it (for example), a leader who seeks such a sweeping change will need to slowly and steadily nudge everyone toward their own conclusion that the new culture is a no-brainer. Indeed, a leader who makes the case then immediately invites everyone to veto it will almost assuredly fail. The common picture of negotiation is unhelpful because it leads us to seek conscious decisions rather than build collective (and often unconscious) consensus.

In sum, images can dramatically influence our behavior in many corners of life, and negotiations are no different. Our common image of negotiation is passable (though not optimal) for used car purchases and one-off salary negotiations. But it fails us dramatically for the negotiations that we as organizational leaders most often face—a critical consequence being that we won’t even recognize them as negotiations or tailor our behavior accordingly. It’s a recipe for making leadership far from negotiable.

What’s negotiable? The many negotiable components of a job offer

Shortly after receiving a job offer, many people’s primary impulse is to negotiate the salary. And thus they despair if the effort fails.

But why the despair? Typically because they haven’t read anything like my last post, which assured you of the approximately 43593457938 negotiable components of a job offer.

But that just begs the question: which components? In other words, which aspects of a job offer can typically be negotiated?

Now, no list of negotiable components can ever be complete, especially since there are 43593457938 of them. Nor can any list apply to every particular job. Summer support? Makes sense to an academic (sort of) but virtually no one else. Finally, a long list of negotiable issues certainly does not imply that you should negotiate everything. As always, the best negotiators push for their critical interests but also know when to call it a day.

Still, in the everlasting and never-ending quest to make life negotiable, perhaps a list of the commonly negotiable components of a job offer can help. So here goes an imperfect but hopefully helpful list of the top 10 categories of negotiable topics:

  1. Other monetary issues. Believe it or not, a failure to negotiate salary does not imply an inability to negotiate all monetary issues. Other money-oriented issues like bonuses, moving expenses, and stock options sometimes remain surprisingly negotiable.
  2. Work location. In today’s virtual world, the amount of time you spend in the office, a satellite office, or your home office is often on the table. And unless you live next to the office, it probably should be.
  3. Travel. A closely related issue is travel—namely how much of it you will do and how glamorous the location. For some people, the more the better and any whistle stop will do. For others, even the thought of another security check elicits nausea. It’s important to at least go in knowing which type you are.
  4. Physical conditions. Assuming you’ll have to spend a bunch of time in the office, many organizations have at least a few degrees of freedom with respect to what it will look and feel like. Will you sit in a cavernous corner, thereby withering away in the absence of natural light? Will you work right next to the copier, mishearing your critical phone calls due to the beep of the buttons? Better to surface those issues beforehand.
  5. Job specifics. For lack of a better title, many specifics of the job itself might remain in play after the job offer—in particular, some especially onerous tasks you might not want to complete, especially onerous times you might not want to be on call, or especially onerous committees you might not want to chair. If you think these types of issues are in fact flexible, you could do yourself a favor by mentioning them.
  6. Career progress and evaluation. Any organization worth working for wants you to make progress in your career and attain increasingly challenging goals. And some might be willing to customize your career trajectory and/or evaluation schedule to promote as much. Accelerating your career or evaluating you more frequently, in turn, might well get you to the desired salary faster.
  7. Education, enrichment, and growth. Any organization worth working for also wants you to learn, enrich yourself, and grow. And many may be willing to put their money behind it, particularly by reimbursing your tuition, supporting your conference attendance, and sending you to professional development courses (for example).
  8. Benefits. Despite the glossy and final-looking pamphlet from HR, at least some of the stuff therein (vacation time, leave, health insurance, retirement plan, housing subsidies, etc.) often remains negotiable. If a particular benefit is especially near and dear, it might not hurt to ask.
  9. Supplies. Will this job come with a stapler and that’s about it? Or could you negotiate to throw in a laptop, your own personal printer, and a particularly shiny set of paperclips (for example)? If it saves you from dealing with an unhelpful IT department, walking a half-marathon to the community printer, or buying paperclips yourself, you might just ask.
  10. Start date. The start date is the date on the job posting, right? Well, it could be. But you might also negotiate to start early (thereby earning back some of the salary shortfall) or start late (thereby earning yourself an extended vacation).

In closing, let me reiterate what I said at the beginning: a plethora of negotiable issues is not a license to demand the world on a silver platter, and then some. Doing so could easily get you branded a prima donna, or even someone with a revoked offer. But I do hope that knowing the 43593457938 negotiable components of a job offer at least calms your despair, boosts your confidence, and earns you a shiny set of paperclips.

Five responses to “equity concerns” in job negotiations

You’re lucky enough to receive a job offer. But it doesn’t meet your expectations, so you muster the courage to counter. And then you get the response that every applicant dreads—the one that immediately diffuses your counter with ‘equity concerns.’ In other words, a response indicating that the employer can’t meet your demands because they would create an inequity within the organization.

Sound familiar? We’ve all heard this phrase or something very much like it. Is there anything at all that you can do to make this nettlesome statement negotiable? It’s a nettlesome statement indeed, but the following five strategies might help:

  1. Mention your knowledge beforehand: Sometimes an employer really can’t meet your demands for equity reasons. But other times, you know full well that other employees in the organization are making exactly what you just requested. In that situation, I’d suggest mentioning your knowledge at the same time as your counteroffer (before their nettlesome response). A difficult admission perhaps, but better than trapping the employer in a lie (or making them feel that way).
  2. Negotiate something else: Salary is one of 14398349813274 things that can be negotiated in a job offer. And, believe it or not, the 14398349813274 things often do more for your satisfaction, at least in combination. And, luckily enough, many of the 14398349813274 things—especially the qualitative ones like access to natural light or virtual work—are somehow immune from ‘equity concerns.’ So even if the equity concerns surrounding salary are real, don’t give up.
  3. Restructure the monetary request: Ok, so they won’t pay $Y. They’ll only pay $X, which is $Z less. And it’s apparently because is $X is the going rate. But would they pay $X plus a performance-based bonus of $Z if you attain target ABC? Again, performance-based pay may somehow escape the grasp of ‘equity concerns.’
  4. Deconstruct the equity equation: Equity is defined as the ratio of inputs to outputs. Employers who cite ‘equity concerns’ don’t always acknowledge that. They focus only on outputs in the form of the standard salary, not on any notable skills, degrees, or certifications (for example) that make your inputs particularly high. Since the ratio between particularly high inputs and standard outputs immediately becomes inequitable, reminding yourself and the employer of the whole equation (uber-carefully and professionally) may help.
  5. Develop and allude to an alternative: The best defense against a meagre offer, albeit the hardest to execute, is to develop a viable plan B—an attractive alternative offer or option. Since you’ll have to exercise your alternatives anyway if the stingy employer demurs, you’d better at least know what they are. Better yet is to have an alternative that you’re actually eager to execute, and thus willing to mention if the ‘equity concerns’ persist despite your best efforts.

In sum, ‘equity concerns’ create a real challenge for any aspiring job negotiator. But a thoughtful strategy can make even this nettlesome tactic negotiable.

Curtailing the never-ending meeting: The deadline effect

Meetings: the great vortex that swallows most of our organizational lives. Is there anything – anything at all – we can do to make them negotiable?

Luckily there are several tactics available. But here let me focus on a particularly helpful nugget of wisdom from the negotiation literature: the deadline effect.

The deadline effect in negotiation essentially, and interestingly, shows that deadlines are not particularly detrimental to those who face them. But wait, don’t we all feel pressured when negotiating with our backs up against a hard stop? Yes, but so too does our counterpart. And that’s the essence of the deadline effect: deadlines focus everyone’s mind on business and can thus be quite beneficial to all negotiators concerned.

It’s not hard to see how the same principle might apply to meetings. We often have the latitude to schedule meetings at various points in the day. Should we schedule them in the middle of a big block of free time? Or should we schedule them right before another meeting? Should we schedule them for longer than needed, just in case, or even leave the timing open-ended? Or should we predetermine that they need to conclude by a specific time, and be quite specific with ourselves as well as the other parties involved about what the time is?

If you want to make meetings negotiable, leveraging the deadline effect is a good place to start: Consider scheduling your meetings right up against your other meetings, and be perfectly clear with yourself and your counterparts as to the existence of a firm deadline in the form of a subsequent meeting. Doing so might make you feel harried and could, potentially, make your long-winded colleagues feel rushed. But chances are it’ll make the bulk of your colleagues feel grateful, as they too will discover more minutes in the day.

In short, deadlines, in organizations, are your friend! Treat them that way, and even meetings can become negotiable.