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.

How to say no in negotiation

Despite the title of negotiation’s seminal text—Getting to Yes—the best negotiators often find themselves saying no. That’s because the goal of negotiation is not agreement—it’s achieving your interests wherever you best can, which is often somewhere else.

But this begs a big “how”: how to say no the right way. Sadly, it’s not as simple as those two letters, which typically convey an unnecessary and unproductive finality.

Since saying no the right way can make life more negotiable, let me offer five suggestions for saying no the right way:

  1. “Not Now”: “No” implies the discussion is over, now and forever. So the other party would be fully justified in deleting your emails and tearing your card from their Rolodex in a flurry of frustration. “Not now” leaves the door open for the future, suggesting that the real problem is not the deal but the timing. So the other party might decide you’re still worth a slot in their inbox and Rolodex.
  2. “I need to think about it / talk to X”: “No” leaves no room for further ideas or realizations, which you just might have when thinking about it or talking to X. Thinking about it or talking to X affords you both the time and the flexibility to change your mind.
  3. “Here’s what concerns me”: “No” provides no information about the underlying reason for the rejection. The other party really has no idea what went wrong. “Here’s what concerns me” provides just that information and keeps the discussion at least temporarily afloat. If they’re smart, they’ll at least consider your concerns before permanently sinking the ship.
  4. “Here’s what I could agree to”: “No” implies you can’t agree to anything about the current proposal—its very mention makes you nauseous. Even more directly than the last response, “Here’s what I could agree to” highlights the contours of a possible agreement. Sure, the other party might not give a hoot. But what’s the risk in giving them one last chance to hoot away?
  5. “I liked when you said…”: During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy famously received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev, one much more acceptable than the other. He deliberately focused on the one he liked better and downplayed the other. Likewise, the next time you’re tempted to meet an ultimatum with a “no,” you can ignore the other party’s ultimatum and focus back on something better they said earlier. Sure, they might still leave. But they might not, and they would have anyway.

In sum, getting to no is just as important as getting to yes, and getting to no the right way is just as important as getting there at all.

Is my negotiation progressing nicely? What, why, and how

How can you know if your negotiation is heading in the right direction? Few complicated questions have simple answers, but let me try to make this one as simple as possible in hopes of making life negotiable.

If your negotiation is progressing nicely, the discussion should generally answer the following three questions, in the following order:

  1. What? Most productive negotiations start with an examination of the basic situation, the facts (actual, not alternative). As in, what are we actually discussing here, and what’s the context? Seems obvious to get the facts out of the way first, but surprisingly many negotiators don’t, preferring to launch into overt conflict before clarifying the premises. (Ask our friends in Washington.) If your negotiation doesn’t surface the facts first, chances are it won’t produce much of anything useful later.
  2. Why? Most productive negotiations eventually progress from a discussion of what we’re talking about to a discussion of why those issues matter to each side. Don’t get to the reasons for the facts as we see them—and surprisingly many don’t—and chances are you’ll get mired in a pointless debate over each side’s positions and their utter irreconcilability. We’ll get stuck at me wanting a raise and you giving me zilch without ever exploring creative ways to reduce my commuting costs, reimburse my education, or obtain a bonus when I bring in the promised business.
  3. How? Most productive negotiations eventually move on from each party’s priorities to a discussion of prospective solutions. Having understood what’s important to each side, the negotiators obviously need to consider how to reconcile those priorities. If your negotiation never gets there—and surprisingly many don’t—and you’ll have a great and deep understanding of the situation and each other. But that’s it. You’ll leave the room scratching your head about what in the world was just decided and what to do next. Ever leave a meeting with just that feeling?

Now, before taking this what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness too far, a clarification is in order: Negotiation, like any form of problem-solving, is an iterative process. You may move on to the why questions and then discover you didn’t understand the what well enough. That’s fine! As long as you eventually get back to why, your negotiation is still progressing nicely.

What’s not fine is skipping steps. Since understanding underlying priorities (why) is hard and often a bit awkward, for example, many people prefer to skip right from what to how. Do that, and you’re likely to surface a solution that seems to fix the situation but doesn’t really solve anyone’s underlying problem. Other people—the go-getters, solution-seekers, extreme Type-A’s—may try to jump right to solutions. Do that, and your solutions won’t even fit the surface-level situation, let alone the underlying problem.

With those clarifications in mind, I would humbly offer the what-why-how model of negotiation effectiveness. Answer those questions in that general order, and you’ll probably find your negotiation progressing nicely. Skip some of those questions or don’t answer any of them, and you’re likely to get the personal equivalent of a shutdown.

Should I negotiate despite a certain no?

As my last post suggested, the first clue you might want to negotiate instead of settling for a suboptimal outcome is dissatisfaction with the status quo. But what if that dissatisfaction is accompanied by absolute certainty that the other party will reject any alternative proposal? Surely you shouldn’t negotiate when you’re certain the other party will say no. Or should you?

You should at least consider it. Indeed, for reasons like the following five, negotiating in the face of a certain no is one of the least appreciated and most powerful ways to make life negotiable:

  1. You make a deposit in the no bank: Most people don’t like being disagreeable all the time—even stubborn people and your organization’s biggest bureaucrats. So every no they give you creates a liability in their psychological no bank—an increasingly acute sense that they should probably repay your persistence with a yes at some point. Put simply, the more no’s a particular person gives you, the higher the probability they’ll give you a yes the next time.
  2. You learn about the other side: In the process of saying no, some naysayers will grace you with a why not. That is, they’ll tell you why it’s so difficult to agree to this particular proposal. And the why not often contains some of the most critical information you’ll ever receive in an organization. Knowing that requests framed a particular way or lacking a particular individual’s blessing don’t succeed in this firm will surely make you savvier the next time.
  3. You might get a no on that but a yes on something else: In the process of saying no, other naysayers may grace you with a but. That is, they’ll say no to your main request but spontaneously offer to do something else that still solves your problem. And at the end of the day, who cares how they solve your problem!?! As long as they do, you’re golden.
  4. You communicate the importance of the issue: Negotiation is not just a process for attaining your goals. It’s a form of communication by which you inform the people around you what you really care about. Ask your superiors about a particular issue enough times and the good ones among them are likely to process your passion for the issue and find a way to work with you the next time it matters.
  5. You’re never actually certain. Sure, you might feel certain about an impending no. But humans being human beings, they often utterly surprise us—particularly by gracing us with an unexpected yes. Maybe they’re feeling unusually cheery today, trying to honor their New Year’s resolution to act agreeably, or hoping to lower the liabilities in their favor bank. Or maybe they just chickened out with the no on the tip of their tongue. Whatever the cause of their shocking amenability, you can be certain that you’re never as certain as you think.

But wait—am I encouraging you, via these points, to negotiate everything all the time? No, as my previous post makes clear, I’m not. All I’m saying in the current post is that the expectation of a no is not a sufficient reason to abandon the possibility of a negotiation. Sometimes a no is just a way-station on the long and winding road to yes.

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.