The best-kept secrets of non-leader negotiators

My last post discussed how organizational leaders negotiate. But a nettlesome fact remains: Many of us are not leaders! We find ourselves farther down the food chain, sometimes much farther.

So a nettlesome question remains: How can non-leaders negotiate?

Since the practices of the most effective non-leader negotiators can make many people’s lives negotiable, let’s consider five of their best-kept secrets:

  1. Dropping subtle hints and popping subtle questions: Meetings to make important decisions are often populated by leaders and non-leaders alike. Sure, the non-leaders’ primary role may be to take notes or make sure the meeting ends on-time. But the most effective non-leader negotiators identify at least the occasional opportunity to drop a subtle hint or ask a subtle question about the subject matter—hints and questions that often redirect the conversation or surface a surprisingly glaring concern.
  2. Being polite: In a world of shockingly impolite people, unadulterated and unexpected politeness acquires immense value. Simply and consistently approaching leaders with a smile and an authentic interest in how they’re doing and what they’re worrying about goes an awfully long way when leaders need a sounding board—particularly a sounding board who has not been required to drink the Kool-Aid by virtue of their leadership position.
  3. Developing powerful allies: Contrary to popular perceptions of negotiation, there’s no rule requiring the best negotiators to fly solo, singlehandedly crushing a piteous counterpart into a pulp. The most effective non-leader negotiators know that all-too-well, and they don’t even try to fly solo. They identify powerful allies who have the organizational leverage to represent their point-of-view—and, more importantly, the willingness to.
  4. Maintaining strict neutrality: Ironically in light of the last point, the most effective non-leader negotiators also pull a Switzerland. Even as they develop allies to stick up for them when it counts, they don’t take a side among competing factions or become a pawn in somebody else’s game of thrones. Sitting at the bar after work, with everyone liquored up and gossiping about the people in the other faction, they chortle but resist the temptation to contribute another caustic comment. Sure, they won’t have nearly as much fun at the bar. But they’ll build a bedrock of trust with both factions, whichever one wins.
  5. Being more prepared: Non-leaders rarely have more organizational power than leaders. But they do tend to have more of another critical resource: time. Sure, no one has much time. But the average non-leader does have more of by comparison. And the most effective non-leader negotiators leverage their comparative advantage to the full, spending their additional time preparing for meetings and decisions in excruciating detail. Simply by commanding the facts, they tend to direct the conversation.

So how do the most effective non-leaders negotiate? As in the case of like leaders, little like we imagine. Subtly, quietly, and slowly counteracting their subordinate role, they accumulate the social capital needed to lead anyway.

What are some other best practices of non-leader negotiators? Join the conversation by leaving a comment!

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.

How do negotiators lead?

How do negotiators lead? Even the question sounds strange, as one negotiator is not really following the other. Nevertheless, negotiations need leaders. Indeed, the negotiator who leads is often the negotiator who triumphs. And leading in negotiations can often make your own life more negotiable.

So what exactly does leadership in negotiation entail? In my view, having the gall to set a strategic direction for the negotiation. And—since the other negotiator has no particular reason to comply—doing so in a manner that subtly encourages them to follow. Leadership in negotiations, I believe, involves doing five things first, in hopes that they take the cue and reciprocate each time:

  1. Be the first to state a goal: In sharp contrast to the image of negotiators as bombastic businessmen who start by lobbing threats and tweeting ultimatums (not that we know anyone like that), negotiators-as-leaders are quick to inform their counterparts, explicitly or implicitly, that they share the same goal: identifying a solution that solves everyone’s problems. However bombastic the subsequent tactics, the shared goal provides at least the possibility of trust.
  2. Share the first piece of information: Negotiators-as-leaders know that neither negotiator has a snowball’s chance of achieving their own objectives unless both negotiators, having built some trust, lay some cards on the table. But most negotiators are wary of card-laying, lest the counterpart see the full hand. Thus, negotiators-as-leaders lead by example, by sharing a particular card—namely, some subtle indication of their foremost priority. It certainly takes gall, and surely is not risk-free. But neither is leading, the last time I checked.
  3. Ask the first question: The beauty of sharing the first piece of information is that the negotiator-as leader can then ask the first question. Having laid at least one card on the table, they can now legitimately ask to see at least one of the counterpart’s. And here’s the wonderful part: research suggests that when you do something nice to somebody else (e.g., sharing information), they generally feel compelled to do something nice to you (e.g., answering your question).
  4. Make the first offer: Leadership in negotiation is not all lollypops and sunshine. Negotiators-as-leaders also know how to lay on a little bombast, albeit at the right time and in the right way. One appropriate way to unleash the bombast, as I’ve said repeatedly before, is to make the first offer. But the appropriate time to do so is after a sufficient number of cards have been revealed. So negotiators-as-leaders know that they ultimately need to make the first offer, but only after they play a few hands.
  5. Make the first concession: The beautiful thing about making the first offer is that it also enables a negotiator to make the first concession. Having anchored the other side on an aggressive first offer, and having heard the presumably aggressive counteroffer of the counterpart, the negotiator-as-leader can now show some goodwill by backing down from the precipice. And as negotiators-as-leaders well-know, a little backing down can take two negotiators a long way from the cliff.

In sum, negotiations need leaders just as much as other organizational situations. It’s just that negotiators-as-leaders don’t have the luxury of devoted followers sprinkling rose petals at their feet. They have counterparts who may see them as the enemy, and thus show no particular eagerness to follow. So negotiators lead not by issuing directives or strategic decrees from the mountaintop. They lead by taking action and hoping the other side follows. And surprisingly often, they do.