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.

The hidden benefits of trust

Managers among us, wouldn’t it be great if the people we manage were happier and more motivated in 2016? Wouldn’t that immediately make life more negotiable?

Well, here’s a deceptively simple path to a better 2016: trust your employees a little more than you were planning to. “Yeah yeah,” you say. “I’ve heard that before, I’ve read Good to Great, sounds like more business school gobbledygook. Look what happened the last time I trusted too much—disaster!”

And you’re absolutely right…about the risks of trusting too much. But what you won’t find in Good to Great, and what most of us completely miss is the hidden benefit of extending a bit more trust: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Picture the following: You’ve managed Jane for the last three years. She’s proven herself reasonably competent at her straightforward clerical tasks, but she hasn’t shown any particular penchant for assuming more responsibility. Then again, you’ve haven’t stretched her too much, ever concerned about the quality of the product. And yet, with the new year upon us and Jane looking distinctly unmotivated for another year of admin, it’s time for a change. What kind?

Well, imagine you decided to trust a bit more. Specifically, you thought to yourself: “Self, although I wasn’t planning to entrust Jane with anything new, she’s been trustworthy enough with the work I’ve already given her.” And so you told Jane: “Jane, you’ve been doing a great job, and I’d like to help you grow. So you know that important project I was planning to lead? I’ll be here to support you, but I want you to take the wheel instead.”

Now, how will Jane respond? With panic, perhaps, never having seen the wheel before. But after the shock subsides, and as she sees you continuing to support her, what will Jane do? Well, no guarantees, but many Janes will eventually react by thinking, “Gee, it seems like my boss is trusting me with something big here. I guess I better step up my game.” And step up she would, arriving earlier, working harder, asking tougher questions, giving better answers, and showing a notable reduction in the hourly need to visit In short, many Janes would react to your trust by trying harder.

Now you probably have heard that before, and you probably could find that somewhere in the golden pages of Good to Great, but here’s the part that most of us miss: How would you react to Jane? Seeing her immediate improvement, what would you think about her? Chances are, you’d look at her performance and think: “Gee, I guess I was right—she’s trustworthy.”

Now, stop and process what happened here: you assumed she was trustworthy enough to entrust her with something big. Perceiving your trust, she stepped up her game. Perceiving her game, you realized she was trustworthy. In sum, you made her look trustworthy by assuming that she was. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, I’m not naïve about trust, and I wouldn’t advise you to be either. There’s a risk that Jane will mess up royally, miss your trust completely, or simply see your gesture as a sign of increasing workload. There are projects you should handle yourself; there are Janes you shouldn’t trust. And of course, these situations are better handled by your managerial intuitions than this post.

But here’s the critical point: if you have a reasonably competent employee, and if you trust them enough that they notice but not so much that they panic, you will often or even usually discover the completely hidden benefit of trust: it not only makes them try harder, it makes you trust them more. So yes, beware the risks of trusting too much, but also attend to the opportunity costs of not trusting enough: the lost engagement and motivation of your employees, and the missed opportunity to create an ever-more trusting relationship. I think you’ll be amazed by the result—I have.