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.