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!

Small wins: Or motivating kids to eat

High-stakes negotiations often go south when the parties perceive a lack of progress. Think trade-related brinksmanship, abandoned mergers, and athletes who walk away from failed contract extensions. In such situations, the absence of progress is decisive. For the same reason, though, the presence of small wins—tiny victories offering at least a glimmer of hope—can help avert disaster.

More immediately relevant to most of us, though, are negotiations that happen closer to home: negotiations, for example, with children who refuse to eat their darn food.

Here too, the lack of progress can lead to negotiation breakdown. And here too, the presence of small wins can make life negotiable. An anecdote to illustrate:

Suppose that I had two daughters and the younger of the two—let’s call her Penelope—was taking forever to eat her food and typically leaving most of it uneaten, day after day. Not that I do or she is. What would a despairing parent do?

Well, an increasingly insistent set of demands wouldn’t work: Penelope would just dig in her heels in the face of escalating parental frustration, trust me.

But what about creating some opportunities for small wins? What if Penelope, on a nightly basis, was actually failing to eat because she saw so little chance of finishing her entire meal and thereby getting the coveted cookie for dessert? Would small doses of dessert scattered throughout the meal serve as a stronger motivator than one big dose at the end?

And such I would decide to do with Penelope, if she was real and really resisting her meals. Specifically, I’d say that for every five bites of real food, she gets one small bite of the coveted cookie. And, lo and behold, it mostly worked…eh hem, would work.

Importantly, the strategy doesn’t involve any change in the reward structure—Penelope gets a whole cookie for a whole meal, regardless. So the strategy is less about upping the ante and more about instilling confidence in Penelope—specifically, the confidence that she can in fact make it to the next bite of cookie, seeing as it only lies three bites of pasta away, rather than a whole bowl.

Just as a president’s subtly positive statement can get a trade deal back on track, a subtly subdivided cookie can help avoid disaster at the dinner table—at least until the little negotiator requests the cookie after two rather than three more bites of pasta.

 

Our own worst enemy in negotiations II: Rushing to do a deal

I recently discussed a common way we defeat ourselves in negotiations: by rejecting our own proposals before we ever present them. But there’s another, potentially more common way that most of us undermine our negotiating prowess: By letting the great press of daily to dos rush us into negotiations without adequate contemplation or preparation. Since rushing into negotiations is sure to make life non-negotiable, let me highlight five of the biggest risks you’ll run by rushing to negotiate at the world’s dizzying pace:

  1. You’ll act out of passion: We all know never to email when emotional. Well, you should never negotiate either! Negotiations fundamentally arise when people’s interests misalign. By commenting on that misalignment without adequate thought, you’ll probably drive an even larger wedge between the parties.
  2. You’ll seem desperate: The best negotiators are fully comfortable with waiting the other side out. They never lose their cool if other person takes their sweet time, requesting some progress and thereby signaling their acute desire for a deal. Rush into a negotiation, and you’ll send the unhelpful signal you need an agreement more than they do.
  3. You’ll prevent your situation from improving: Real-world negotiations are dynamic phenomena unfolding in the context of shifting alternatives. Rush into a deal, and you’ll inherently prevent yourself from watching a better alternative roll in—an even better job offer, a more attractive price from another dealer, a nicer yet cheaper house.
  4. You’ll get a suboptimal deal done: Most of us rush into negotiations because we feel an irresistible pressure to get something done. The risk is that we will. That is, we risk prioritizing action over reasoned action, settling for a deal that is worse than our alternative or worse than not acting at all.
  5. You’ll spend a long time regretting what you’ve done: If any of the above happen as a result of your haste, you’re likely to spend a great deal of time, post-negotiation, regretting said haste. And if the goal was to get a deal done and move on with the great press of daily to dos, you’ll find your rumination accomplishing just the opposite.

In sum, most of us face unending pressure from the unyielding world to get things done. What the unyielding world doesn’t realize is this unending pressure makes us unsuccessful at the bargaining table. Resist the pull of immediate deal-making, and you might get some grumbles over your pace, but you won’t get any quibbles over your results.

Are kids better negotiators?

Does older mean wiser and better? In negotiations, the answer is far from clear. Indeed, as most parents can attest, kids are often surprisingly adept negotiators, displaying a plethora of negotiation skills their elders have long since forgotten. So in hopes of making parenthood and adulthood more negotiable, let’s unpack some of the long-forgotten secrets of our precious little negotiators:

  1. Sticking to their guns: Most kids have shockingly firm aspirations. Come hell or high water, they are going to get that toy, eat that junk food, or watch that particular show. In other words, they know how to fixate on their aspirations until they win! Since fixating on firm aspirations is a foundational negotiation skill that most adults have long since suppressed for social harmony, kids often succeed where adults fall short.
  2. Asking open-ended questions: My six-year-old Petunia’s favorite word is “why,” and she often utters it immediately after a nonnegotiable decree: Clean that mess, put your PJs on, eat that cereal—now! But here’s the interesting part: I don’t always have a good reason why that mess, those PJs, or that cereal really requires immediate attention. And my Petunia’s “why” quickly surfaces as much, which she quickly exploits. Long conditioned to comply with authority, most adults quash their curiosity and suppress their open-ended questioning, thereby settling for a plethora of suboptimal situations.
  3. Bartering: There’s nothing more natural to a kid than trading their candy, swapping their chores, or bartering their Christmas presents. To their own tremendous benefit, kids innately barter. For some odd reason—probably the prominence of monetary thinking in our own adult lives—most adults have long lost touch with bartering, as well as the creativity it requires (as described in my new book). So, most adults ignore or never really perceive the possibility of many trades that would improve everyone’s lot.
  4. Understanding alternatives: Kids innately understand everyone’s alternatives, and particularly their relative strength. For example, they know that if they cause a ruckus in a restaurant, the parents’ alternative of paying for an uneaten dinner and settling for rotten leftovers is worse than their own alternative of going home for free and enjoying some Kraft. Put differently, kids inherently understand their leverage. Perhaps chastened for their overly aggressive maneuvers in the past, most adults don’t see or don’t act on the leverage they have.
  5. Developing alliances: Kids don’t see the existence of two parents as a hindrance; they see their dual counterparts as an opportunity to divide-and-conquer. They know which parent is more inclined to give them soda, less inclined to mind their sloppy homework, or more inclined to forgive their misdeeds. So they naturally build an alliance with the more conciliatory parent in a given situation, entreating that parent to convince the other. Adults, perhaps aware of the social and political risks of alliances, seem less comfortable in building them.

In my opinion as a parent and professor, these are just a few of the many ways that kids tend to outperform adults in negotiations. Of course, adults generally have a good reason for their behavior: If they acted like a kid indiscriminately and across situations, they’d be kicked out of every social circle and organization. So the message is not to become a kid completely and at all times. It’s to recognize the true negotiations we face and use our cultivated wisdom to consider whether a small dose of childhood audacity might help.

Can negotiation research make you a better presenter?

Making presentations is a major part of many people’s jobs. So wouldn’t it be nice to somehow make presentations more negotiable?

Here, as in many areas, negotiation research can help. In particular, a broad reading of the negotiation literature’s distinction between distributive and integrative approaches can help to manage the many types of difficult audience members you might encounter when presenting.

First, let’s unpack the distinction. Negotiators can approach their task using a distributive or integrative approach. A distributive approach involves competitively and aggressively seeking to achieve your own interests at the expense of the counterpart’s. An integrative approach involves cooperatively and creatively seeking solutions to satisfy both parties at the same time. Negotiators can adopt either approach (or both) in nearly any context (for example, consider this application to intra-family negotiations).

And now, let’s see how the two approaches can help us deal with some prototypically nettlesome audience members—people in the audience of our presentations who…

  1. Say they have a question but really have a comment: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “What’s the question?” in an attempt to call them out. Under the integrative approach, you’d acknowledge the comment and transform it into a question you can answer, thereby validating their point but repositioning the ball in your own court.
  2. Love to hear themselves talk: The distributive approach would involve cutting them off. An integrative approach would involve asking them to pause while you answer the first twelve parts of their 434238497234-part question, then asking them if it’s ok to take the rest offline (most will oblige).
  3. Are saying something dumb: The distributive approach would involve dismissing their comments on the basis of dumbness. The integrative approach involves finding the kernel of wisdom buried in every dumb comment, then rephrasing it in smarter terms. (Making others look smarter than they are is often a good idea.)
  4. Ask about something you’re planning mention shortly: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “I’ll get to that.” Under the integrative approach, you’d complement them for acutely anticipating your line of thinking, then ask whether it’s ok to address it in X slides. Again, most are happy to oblige.
  5. Are frowning and crossing their arms: The distributive approach would involve fixating on them and trying to convince them. As described in my book, the integrative approach would involve finding more amenable negotiation partners, namely the others in the audience who are smiling and supportive.

And so, there’s a distributive and an integrative way to interact with the many difficult members of our audiences. Although I’m sure we’ve never been difficult audience members ourselves, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a distributive presenter. On that basis, I hope we can all commit to following the integrative approach ourselves.

When win-win negotiation = win-lose negotiation

Many have commented on the risks managers face by not assuming a win-win approach in negotiation—and I am one. Obstinately reject all your employees’ requests, suppliers’ inquiries, and peers’ pleas for help, and you’ll quickly find yourself on the other side of a pink slip.

But, as my friend Georg Berkel is discussing in his upcoming book on learning to negotiate, pursuing a win-win with one party can often carry a less appreciated risk of its own: creating a win-lose for someone else. Since understanding the second risk is just as critical for making management negotiable, let’s unpack this cryptic possibility.

Consider the following examples: Managers sometimes receive requests from employees hoping to be exempted from an organizational policy. Or inquiries from suppliers hoping for preferential treatment in an RFP. Or pleas from peers trying to redirect resources toward their pet projects. What’s interesting about these situations is this: A simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on win-win negotiation would essentially encourage the manager to get creative in accommodating such requests. At least when it fulfills their own managerial interests in winning friends and allies, go ahead and waive the policy, wink at the preferred supplier, speak out in favor of the pet project.

But here’s what’s even more interesting: Do each of those things, thereby securing a win-win with the requestor, and the manager is bound to create a win-lose for someone else. What about the other employees who still have to follow the policy (and thus face greater constraints)? Or the other suppliers who don’t get preferential treatment (and thus have a lesser chance of winning the deal despite a potentially better product)? Or the colleagues in other departments who find their funding cut to accommodate the peer’s expensive project (and may thus underperform)? In each case, pursuing a win-win with a requestor present at the table tends to create a win-lose for someone absent from the table. And that win-lose will likely become a lose-lose when the victim retaliates.

So what’s a poor manager to do—pursue a win-win or avoid it? I would forget this false dichotomy and instead suggest the following:

  1. Try to identify anyone markedly impacted by a prospective deal but absent from the table
  2. If appropriate and feasible, invite them to the table
  3. If not, at least try to anticipate what they would say if they were there
  4. And, better yet, incorporate whatever it is into the deal
  5. Ultimately, stand up for the win-win of the collective and not just the win-win of a cozy dyadic relationship

And so, in contrast to an overly simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on negotiation, win-win is not always an unalloyed good. Perhaps it is for the parties present, but not necessarily for the parties absent (and, for many organizational decisions, many are absent). But hopefully a mere awareness of their phantom presence can nudge the manager toward a win-win for the broader collective.

Negotiating against ourselves: Stop it!

In preparing to negotiate, most of us spend so much time worrying about our counterpart’s likely behavior that we forget to face down a far tougher counterpart: ourselves. That is, we out-negotiate ourselves even before we meet our real counterparts. We tell ourselves not to request that, not to think that, not to mention that idiosyncratic issue—so we don’t. But why? Since systematically shutting off our inner negotiator can make life negotiable, let’s unpack the issue.

In the moments before a negotiation, most of us implicitly engage in an inner conversation something like this:

  • “Should I ask for that? No, I don’t want to seem greedy.”
  • “What will she think if I raise that idea? That it’s crazy.”
  • “Should I say anything about that important but potentially weird issue? No, I don’t want to seem weird.”

Through inner conversations like these, most of us routinely convince ourselves to suppress what we really want and need before we ever ask for it. As a result, most of us just don’t get it—no critical adjustment to our work schedule, no support for our innovative but potentially wacky idea, no idiosyncratic but necessary amendment to our benefits.

But why? Why would we ever negotiate so hard against ourselves before the negotiation even starts? I’ve observed three, interrelated reasons:

  1. We’re afraid of uncomfortable interpersonal situations.
  2. We want other people to like us.
  3. We conclude that if we ask for what we really need, an uncomfortable interpersonal situation will ensue, and other people won’t like us.

But consider five, interrelated problems with these assumptions:

  1. As mentioned above and before, if we don’t ask for it, we won’t get it.
  2. Humans being human beings, we really have no idea how they’ll react until we ask.
  3. On average and over the long-term, other people will probably respect us more if we ask for what we need rather than acting as a human doormat.
  4. For some reason, we’re much more scared of a mildly unpleasant, short-term “no” than a highly unpleasant, permanently dissatisfying agreement.
  5. We don’t realize that a rejected request is often the gateway to additional creativity from both sides.

So what can we do about our dubious inner negotiator? I’d suggest a three-step response:

  1. Start calling yourself out the next time you hear the inner negotiator.
  2. Starting telling your inner negotiator to knock it off.
  3. Try a couple experiments in which you actually ask for what you really want and need. If it’s really so risky, the risks will appear quickly, and you can backtrack. But, in my experience as a negotiation researcher and teacher, you’re much more likely to find yourself finally getting what you need.

So should you just go out and ask for everything in the world? No. To be clear, I’m not telling anyone to get greedy or follow every frivolous desire under the sun. But I am telling those of us who routinely talk ourselves out of pursuing our true needs—most of us—to stop counting ourselves out before the match ever begins.