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.

“It’s not fair!”

Any guesses as to the most popular phrase in the toddler’s vocabulary? That’s right: “It’s not fair.” While we may be tempted to discount these three words as a manifestation of the toddler’s irrational mind, I’m here to suggest that they can actually teach us something important about disputes. In particular, I’d like to suggest that this phrase represents nearly everyone’s reaction in a dispute situation, and recognizing as much can make our own disputes more negotiable.

Any parent has experienced something like the following:

  • Toddler (7 AM): “I want chocolate!”
  • Parent: “No, not for breakfast.”
  • Toddler: “But it’s not fair!”
  • Parent: “Oh, yes it is.”

This is a classic dispute. The toddler made a claim, namely that chocolate was appropriate at 7 AM. And the parent rejected it, namely by saying no. Both sides found their own positions entirely fair.

While this dispute may seem silly or contrived, consider the following analogue: It’s January, and you wish to take your vacation a bit earlier this year than last. So you ask your boss: “Boss, can I take my vacation in February?” “No,” your boss says, “We’re pretty busy that time of year.” A completely different domain, but a very similar situation. You wanted to do something a little earlier than someone else expected, and they simply said no. Again, both sides probably found their own positions entirely fair.

Anytime one party makes a claim and another party rejects that claim, you have the basic outlines of a dispute. And anytime you have the basic outlines of the dispute, both parties think that their position is fair. The fact that we identify with our own vacation claim more than the toddler’s chocolate claim doesn’t change the basic situation: everyone in a dispute considers their own view the very epitome of fairness.

In this light, toddlers can teach us something important: in the context of a dispute, appeals to fairness are not likely to work. However fair your own claim seems, you can rest assured your counterpart sees things just the opposite. So how convinced will they be by the natural and oft-made argument, issued later and in a professional adult manner of course, that this particular decision is not particularly fair? Not very.

In this respect, I have to lodge a slight amendment to the book Getting to Yes. Despite the book’s many positive qualities, which I have often extolled in this blog, it advises the reader to resolve conflicts by focusing on objective standards. But the toddler’s behavior shows us that objectivity is subjective, at least when a negotiation becomes a dispute. Since everyone finds their own views the epitome of fairness, trying to be objective is unlikely to get you any closer to a resolution.

So what can you do? Well, you can probably turn to another insight from Getting to Yes: Focusing on underlying interests. The toddler wanted chocolate at 7 AM, but why? Perhaps they’re just hungry for something a little sweeter than the normal dose of plain oatmeal, in which case an apple may do? Your boss said no to the February vacation, but why? Are they concerned that you won’t finish the big report, which you’ve actually already drafted?

Bottom line: “It’s not fair” is everyone’s reaction to a dispute, not just the irrational toddler’s. And however professional and adult-like you put it, it’s not going to convince your counterpart. So the next time you find yourself in a dispute, resist the toddler’s temptation to highlight the unfairness of the situation and instead focus on unearthing whichever of your counterpart’s interests led them to reject your claim in the first place. It’s only by transcending the tendencies of a toddler—surprisingly hard for all of us in a dispute—that we can hope to resolve the disputes and achieve the interests in our own lives.