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.

A simple psychological suggestion for acing your next job interview

Interviewing tips are a dime a dozen. “10 steps to a killer interview…” “5 words to avoid in any interview…” As far as I can tell, though, precious few of these tips are based on much scientific evidence.

What does science (psychology in particular) have to say about comporting ourselves in a job interview? Quite a lot, actually, but one of the most important lessons concerns how we present our abilities—namely, whether we wow them with the breadth of our abilities or focus on a thematic few. I’ll leave you in suspense about the bottom line except to say that its adoption can make interviewing more negotiable.

Consider the following scenario. You’re interviewing for a highly senior job at a highly impressive company. You’ve been invited to meet with three separate interviewers (separately), after which the three of them will presumably meet to discuss you and the other candidates.

Now, here’s the question. In your meetings with the three interviewers, should you:

  1. Emphasize the same three abilities to all three people, telling everyone about your impressive analytic, bookkeeping, and communication (A/B/C) skills, for example, or…
  2. Emphasize three separate abilities to each person, telling the first interviewer about your A/B/C skills but the next person about your diligence, extraversion, and flexibility (D/E/F) and the third person about your G/H/I?

It depends on the relevance of these particular skills for the job, of course, but let’s assume abilities A-I are all quite relevant. Which option should you choose?

I’ve asked this question of many students, and most prefer the latter. If you could emphasize three separate abilities to three separate people for a whopping total of nine, why would you ever emphasize a wimpy three? Wouldn’t that just leave them wondering about your diligence, extraversion, and flexibility, for example?

Well, mathematically, yes: 9 > 3. But we need more than math to understand what will happen here—we need psychology.

Imagine you emphasized your three separate skills to the three separate interviewers, and they’re now meeting to discuss your candidacy. How will the conversation go? Something like this:

  • Interviewer 1: “I was really impressed with her analytic skills!”
  • Interviewer 2: “Huh? Well, I don’t know anything about that, but I was sure impressed with her flexibility.”
  • Interview 1: “Huh? Not sure what you mean, but her bookkeeping skills could really help us out.”
  • Interviewer 3: “Huh?

You get the picture: This conversation’s not gonna go very smoothly, and guess who’ll pay the price.

But now let’s imagine you’d emphasized the same three skills to all three interviewers. How’s that meeting likely to go?

  • Interviewer 1: “I was really impressed with her analytic skills!”
  • Interviewers 2 and 3 (jumping out of their chairs with enthusiasm): “Me too!”
  • Interviewer 2: “And how about those bookkeeping skills?!?”
  • Interviewers 1 and 3: “Amazing!”

Just moments later, all three interviewers would go out for beers, having identified the right candidate in the first one minute.

You get the picture. Since you stayed on message with all three interviewers, you gave them a lot of common ground—what psychology calls common information or common knowledge. Decades of research show that, when groups of people make a decision together, they rely heavily on common information—information on which they all already agreed even before meeting. Indeed, compared to whatever private information they might have brought into the meeting, group members tend to trust, discuss, and use the common information a whole lot more. So when they share a lot of common information—about your A/B/C skills perhaps—the decision becomes easy. But when they have little in common—as they did when you mentioned nine separate skills—well, the conversation quickly becomes contentious. It seems they can’t agree on anything, so you seem scattered and unhirable.

The implication of the common information effect is pretty simple: If you want to make a good impression on a group of interviewers, you’re well-advised to stick to a few common themes rather than wow them with the breadth of your abilities. Be thematic!

But what if your three thematic skills don’t cover all the skills they need? Well, it doesn’t have to be three. Include as many skills as you’d like, knowing that they probably won’t remember more than 3 to 7. But what if they ask questions that have nothing to do with your three thematic skills? You obviously want to answer the question that’s asked; otherwise you’ll seem awfully strange.

  • Interviewer 1: “Tell me about your flexibility”
  • You: “Well, I’m very good at bookkeeping.”

But, as any experienced interviewee knows, any question has many appropriate answers, some of them relating more closely to your themes.

Bottom line: consistency is generally helpful when meeting with a group of interviewers. Just one suggestion from psychology. Hopefully it helps!