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!

Three surprising advantages of negotiating with multiple people

Many of our negotiations feature several counterparts: It’s us on one side of the table and a couple of people across it. Faced with multiple counterparts, even the experienced negotiator quakes in their boots. How can we, our lone selves, contend with multiple opponents? But a recent multiparty negotiation at the dentist’s office reminded me that these types of negotiations do not necessarily redound to our disadvantage—they sometimes afford us, the lone negotiator, some interesting, information-related advantages.

Background for the story: One of my teeth is slightly chipped. On a recent trip to the dentist, I considered inquiring about the possibility of fixing it with a filling. Let’s review the rest of the story and thereby surface some benefits of negotiating against multiple parties, in the hopes of making life negotiable.

  1. You can compare the information offered by each party. Before inquiring with the dentist about the filling, I decided to inquire with the friendly hygienist. Specifically, I asked her whether, after sinking a boatload of load of money into an expensive filling, it would stay in for more than five minutes. “On that tooth, it’s hard to keep the filling in there for long,” she said. Then, after the hygienist had left the room and dentist had entered, I re-asked the same question. “Oh, that will definitely stay in for a long time,” the dentist assured me. Same question—two very different answers. Interesting.
  2. You can take action based on the information disparities. Hearing the discrepancy between the hygienist’s and dentist’s opinions, I started to experience some uncertainty as to its source. Did the discrepancy reflect the dentist’s advanced training or…eh hem…his other interests? So I asked him about the possibility of a contingency contract in which he would guarantee the filling for a certain period of time or give me my money back. He very begrudgingly agreed, suggesting the discrepancy reflected his advanced training, sort of.
  3. You can control the information you provide to each party. At this point, the hygienist reentered the room, and the dentist overoptimistically interpreted our conversation as indicating I was ready to schedule an appointment for the filling immediately. And before I could correct his overzealousness, he had shaken my hand and left. The hygienist, in turn, walked me upfront, repeated the dentist’s message to the scheduler, and wished me well. But before the scheduler had even opened her Outlook calendar, I seized the opportunity to tell her that I was actually only interested in learning more about the procedure—specifically, its price and whether my insurance would cover it. So I asked her whether she would call me with the price, at which point I would consider and call her back (a form of ratification). The introduction of this third counterpart, the scheduler, was all that saved me from an expensive and premature agreement.

In sum, the next time you find yourself on one side of a table and multiple people on the other, don’t panic. In many ways, you, the lone negotiator, have the informational advantage. Seize it!

Revision requests from journals: Time to negotiate!

Revision requests from journals—when you’re lucky enough to receive them—represent golden opportunities to negotiate: with reviewers, as I’ve suggested before, but also with coauthor(s).

Consider some of the many topics that may require at least an implicit negotiation with your coauthors:

  • Whether the revision is doable
  • Timelines and deadlines
  • How to respond to reviewer requests
  • Who will do what
  • Who will contribute what
  • Who will get the final say
  • Any implications for authorship

And these are just some of the salient examples. To make revisions negotiable, consider the following negotiation principles that are particularly critical for these situations:

  1. Integrative rather than distributive negotiation: You and your co-authors presumably share the same goal: to get the paper published at the journal that just returned it. Therefore, and in spite of any creative differences that may arise, the pie is more expandable than fixed. What’s good for the goose is generally good for the gander. It’s helpful to keep that in mind at the outset, and periodically when the revisionary road gets bumpy.
  2. Trade-offs rather than value-claiming: The parties to a revision request might be tempted to engage in a distributive, value-claiming competition over apparently fixed pies, like who will rewrite what. But why? Why fight over a single issue when there are so many to choose from, and when several could be bundled for mutual gain? In particular, the various parties to a revision request may often find it easier and/or more pleasant to do different things. Maybe one party can easily collect new data but has no time to write, while the other has oodles of time for writing but no mechanism for data collection. In this case, it’s probably better to have one author do all the writing and the other all the collecting, as opposed to arm-wrestling over the writing alone.
  3. Information exchange rather than offer exchange: When several authors differ about the appropriate response to a reviewer comment (for example), the temptation is for each party to strenuously make their case. In other words, each party is essentially tempted to make an offer and see which offer predominates. That’s ok, but it’s often better for each party to stop making proposals and start probing the reasons underlying the other parties’ positions. “Why do you feel so strongly that we need to scrap that study?” A question like that often surfaces a vivid experience, paper of which you were oblivious, or underlying philosophy of science that makes the strenuous position a lot more understandable.
  4. Contingency contracts rather than immediate decisions: Oftentimes, reviewer comments thrust co-authors into a lively debate about how extensively to rework the paper. “That argument won’t make sense” or “That experiment won’t work,” one side might say, only to have the other strenuously disagree. The parties could continue to debate it or simply let the argument and/or experiment speak for themselves. In other words, they could decide to let the author who believes in the argument or experiment craft it or do it, then collectively determine whether it makes sense or works (respectively). That approach—akin to the negotiation strategy known as a contingency contract—is often more productive than debating ad nauseum.
  5. Post-settlement settlement rather than static agreement: Responses to a revision request often take an extraordinarily long time. Agreements reached at the outset about who will do what, how the team will respond to reviewer comments, or what the timeline will look like often seem sheepishly out-of-date as the arduous process unfolds. Rather than slavishly sticking to the original agreement, why not occasionally renegotiate a deal that’s better for everyone as new facts come to light—essentially the strategy known as post-settlement settlement?

In sum, revision requests are wonderful opportunities—opportunities that every scholar worth their salt dreams of. But the receipt of the request is not the end but the beginning of the process, as the authors then need to negotiate the terms of an arduous and extended undertaking. By treating the revision request as an opportunity to solve a very complex problem with very smart people rather than an opportunity to wage a self-focused battle, all authors can fulfill their dreams and remain friends to reflect on it.

Putting on the brakes: Negotiation via procrastination

We’ve all heard Ben Franklin’s advice to never “put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” And many of us probably even try to follow that advice. But is procrastination always bad? Not necessarily in negotiation. Indeed, it’s often flat-out strategic to halt negotiations rather than resolve them right now.

Be it with kids or coworkers, most of us encounter differences of opinion daily. What if we resisted our natural tendency to fight through these differences, and instead just waited? Facing differences of opinion, procrastination can often make life more negotiable.

Why? Consider the following five arguments for procrastination:

  1. They may forget about it: Many disputes can seem earth-shaking in the moment but forgettable soon after. Rather than fight about earth-shaking issues today, why not wait for them to fade away tomorrow? So when your three-year old absolutely insists on applying an assortment of expensive Doc McStuffins Band-Aids to a non-existent cut (not that mine has ever done that), you might suggest we sort it out after dinner, by which point you’re sure she won’t give a rat’s behind about Doc McStuffins.
  2. You may learn more: Many business negotiations get hung up by differing expectations about the future. Will the amazing new leptons we’re selling command the 50% market share we claim (thereby justifying our high price)? Or the 10% market share you claim (thereby requiring a discount)? We could fight through it. But we might as well agree to see how the leptons are doing in six months, then settle our accounts based on what we learn.
  3. Their emotions will cool: The two arguments above emphasize what’s going on in our heads while disputing, but negotiations often involve our hearts too. The basic reason for a dispute may be no particularly good reason at all: elevated emotions. The nice thing about emotions, though, is that they tend to fade with time. You might want to give them some, in hopes that the sands of time will wash away their affect (even if they don’t forget about the issue itself).
  4. Your emotions will cool: It’s easy to blame our irrational counterparts for their uncontrollable emotions, but the truth is that one person’s emotions often spill over into the other person’s emotions. So even if we bring a rational mind to such matters, our own emotions may, we must admit, occasionally flare. In these situations, Thomas Jefferson’s advice is appropriate: “When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” After a few repeats of the Doc McStuffins dispute, you may have to make that 1,000.
  5. You’ll be more likely to discover a creative solution: Negative emotions are not helpful for discovering the innovative, out of the box solutions that would so often solve a dispute. Two angry sisters, for example, are more likely to slice their one orange down the middle than discover that one needs the inside and the other needs the outside of the orange. Even if it does nothing else, the sheer passage of time increases the probability that a creative solution may happily cross someone’s mind.

In sum, I’m not contracting Ben Franklin. But I am suggesting that, in the context of the disputes we face daily, Thomas Jefferson was probably on to something.

Have you ever waited to solve a dispute that could as well solve now?