Offers you can’t refuse

Employees in organizations often get offers they can’t refuse. As in The Godfather, though, it’s not that the offers are enticing. It’s that the employees who receive them literally can’t refuse without suffering irreparable damage. They’d better accept that project assignment or stare down a pink slip. They’d better support that strategy or watch their career wither.

Since the offer recipient can’t say anything but yes, these situations can’t be negotiations, right? Well, sort of. Negotiation research as well as my own experience studying and working in organizations hints at a few strategies for making even these non-negotiable situations negotiable:

  1. Discuss the how: The fact that you can’t negotiate whether to support a particular strategy, for example, does not imply that you can’t negotiate how to do it. Would you be more comfortable working behind the scenes on the implementation details associated with that strategy than publicly proclaiming your support at town-halls? Or, if you have to proclaim your support, would you simply prefer to do so after filing your quarterly numbers and watching your workload level off? Even if you can’t negotiate the what, you can often negotiate the how.
  2. Ask for something different: The fact you can’t negotiate a particular offer does not imply that you can’t negotiate anything at all. Suppose you’ve really been wanting a better cubicle and then comes an offer you can’t refuse: take on a new project! But wait: Couldn’t this be your golden opportunity to accept the project even while requesting the cubicle? You wouldn’t necessarily have to do both at exactly the same time, but you could! What if the new cubicle also positioned you closer to the people you’ll work with on the project?
  3. Ask for something different in the future: Even if there’s nothing else to negotiate right now—or even if negotiating right now would be inappropriate—you can surely think of a few things you’ll need to negotiate in the future. Perhaps you know you’ll eventually need to request a raise, a virtual work arrangement, or the ability to reduce (or increase) your travel? At the time of the non-refusable offer, why not make a specific note (or at least a mental note) linking the offer to your future need? That’s not to say it will be necessary or appropriate to verbally reference the non-refusable offer when making the future request. It’s just to suggest that people who make requests (even non-refusable requests) of you right now may be more psychologically inclined to hear requests from you in the future.

Luckily, most of us don’t deal with Godfather-style gangsters at work. But many of us do deal with offers that, for a host of more mundane reasons, we can’t realistically refuse. Here’s hoping that seeing the negotiable elements of non-negotiable offers can make life, in general, more negotiable.

Anchoring indiscriminately: An ill-advised alternative to not offering at all

People commonly have one of two intuitions about whether to make the first offer in a negotiation. Many people’s intuition is simple: Don’t. Wait to hear what the other side says and try to learn from it. While appropriate in certain situations, this approach has major problems that I and others have detailed before.

But today, let’s explore the other common intuition about first offers. The more brazen among us tend to assume the opposite: Always move first. Always drop an aggressive anchor that will force the other side to play on your home turf. To that point, haven’t we all worked with someone who anchors indiscriminately on everything—who always suggests allocating themself the most staff, biggest budget, or smallest amount of work?

We’ve all worked with someone like that.

And so we should all know that this approach is just as ill-advised as the first—all but certain to make life non-negotiable. Since many people haven’t gotten the memo, though, let’s consider a few serious downsides of this strategy in the workplace. To all those who consider anchoring indiscriminately a wise tactic, consider the risks that:

  1. You’ll develop a reputation: Perhaps the biggest risk of anchoring indiscriminately is that everyone will associate your name with the tactic. When I mention the person who asks for the most staff, biggest budget, or least work, you’ll personally pop into everyone’s brain. And if the image sticks in their mind, they’ll probably start…
  2. Using the same tactic on you: If it was just you anchoring indiscriminately, the tactic might work. But there’s a whole world of savvy or at least cynical and battle-scarred negotiators who, observing you anchoring indiscriminately, might start anchoring just as indiscriminately against you in all future confrontations. And an ongoing war of indiscriminate anchors is not gonna end well. Alternatively…
  3. They’ll walk away: A deal anchored around your hopes and desires is great as long as it happens. But research suggests it may not if the recipient is offended by your offer. Instead, they’ll get mad and march away. This is not a justification for not moving first in an isolated situation, but it’s a consideration when considering whether to anchor indiscriminately, as those who detect the tactic are likely to get offended more easily and often.
  4. You’ll have to live with yourself: If you happen to work at a particularly pliable organization, you might get lucky and find others assenting to all your indiscriminate requests. But then you’ll have to live with an accumulating mass of guilt associated with a series of unnecessary requests, if not a groundswell of derision from your colleagues.
  5. You’ll lose touch with your real priorities: Less appreciated but no less important is the risk that you’ll get so fixated on anchoring indiscriminately that you’ll forget to consider your real priorities. In the process of dropping anchors wherever you can—and often it’s the quantifiable stuff like staff numbers, dollar amounts, and time commitments—you’ll forget to consider whether those issues matter most in a given situation. And since the qualitative stuff often matters more, you’ll miss the opportunity to anchor where it counts.

So if both anchoring indiscriminately and avoiding anchors entirely are problematic, what would I advise? Choosing your anchors carefully: identifying the negotiations that matter most and the issues that matter most within them, and anchoring unabashedly on those. But also identifying the less critical negotiations and less consequential issues and demonstrating the willingness to be a team player. Here’s to anchoring intelligently rather than indiscriminately!

When and why to pick your battles: The hidden connection to logrolling

We’ve all heard the hackneyed organizational advice to “pick your battles.” But there are two interrelated and semi-obvious problems with this (and much other) advice: No one can clearly say when or why it applies.

Luckily, negotiation research has something indirectly but highly relevant to say about picking your battles. Since understanding what it is can make organizational life negotiable, let’s unravel these cryptic comments further.

The negotiation literature has not, to my knowledge, directly investigated picking your battles. But it has often investigated the negotiation strategy of logrolling, in which you make a concession on a relatively trivial issue if (and only if) your counterpart concedes on something of critical importance to you. You accept the silly financing plan if the dealer gives you the coveted discount. You agree to work on the task you secretly sorta like if your coworker relieves you of something onerous.

As you might suspect from the examples, the ability to effectively logroll is central to the ability to effectively negotiate in general. The logic is simple: It’s often considerably more satisfying to get everything you want on a really important issue (and nothing on something trivial) than is to get half of what you wanted on both.

Now what (in the world) does this have to do with picking your battles? Quite a lot, actually. Because what does it mean to pick your battles if not to let someone have their way on an issue that doesn’t really rock your world (but might rock theirs), in expectation that you’ll demand your way on a future issue capable of making your own world shudder? Put like that, the connection to logrolling is obvious: picking your battles is simply logrolling spread over time—conceding on the unimportant issues of the present in exchange for someone else’s concessions on the critical issues of the future.

If you buy the analogy, then you should find it easier to detect the situations when the advice really applies: when you’re dealing with an issue that’s trivial to you and critical to them, as well as a person you expect to depend on in the future. (If any of these conditions don’t apply, battle away!) Additionally, you should find it easier to motivate your own battle-picking since you can now see the benefits looming down the line. Most importantly, you should increasingly find yourself waging and winning the critical battles at work rather than belaboring and losing the continuous war.

What’s so hard about negotiating in organizations?

Negotiations in organizations have a tendency to go wrong. Requests for an exception get denied, proposals for the future get rejected, solutions to a problem get parked in the perpetual parking lot.

But why do so many of us find intra-organizational negotiating so hard? Put differently, is there something special about organizations that makes negotiations inside of them so difficult, or do difficulties like these simply reflect the difficulty of negotiating in general—the same types of challenges you’d face at the car dealer?

Having studied negotiation for 13 years and worked in organizations for longer, I’d suggest it’s the former. That is, I’d highlight a few special features of organizations that make negotiating within them a unique challenge. But luckily, knowing what they are can make organizational life more negotiable.

Consider five of the presumably most common reasons why negotiations in organizations fall flat. Specifically, imagine yourself making a particular request of your superiors. The request is likely to get rejected if it:

  1. Creates a perceived inequity: I recently noted how bosses who adopt a win-win mindset with their employees (e.g., by granting a special exception) sometimes create a win-lose inequity for the employees who don’t receive the exception. Well, the flip-side is that your win-win suggestion may do just that. To mitigate the issue, perhaps take the boss’s perspective before making the request?
  2. Doesn’t garner enough attention: It’s hard to redirect senior executives’ limited attention to anything outside the never-ending press of daily emergencies—especially unusual requests requiring less-than-immediate action. Add their limited attention to the risks of the telephone game, and you’ve got a recipe for inaction or outright rejection. To mitigate the issue, perhaps find a way to make your request especially vivid or enlist the help of someone who can call it to the executives’ repeated attention?
  3. Sets a bad precedent: One way for a boss to avoid creating inequity is to grant your request and then grant the same to everyone else. But what would the organization look like if everyone enjoyed the same privilege—the same three days of virtual work, personally crafted benefits plan, or personally reimagined expense policy? If mass chaos would ensue, a wise boss is unlikely to grant your request. To mitigate the issue, perhaps imagine what the organization would look like beforehand (applying something like the categorical imperative)?
  4. Calls a bad parallel to mind: Any experienced boss has heard every manner of request from employees. And inevitably, some of the granted requests have subsequently turned sour. Someone abused their virtual work, someone extracted crazy benefits and quickly quit, someone tried to get reimbursed for something you wouldn’t even purchase. If you’re unlucky enough to surface a request that calls such experiences to mind, you’ve got a tough slog ahead. The best I can suggest is stepping away to regroup, then reframing your request in starkly different terms than anyone’s ever requested before.
  5. Gets stuck in organizational inertia: Organizations show massive inertia—marching methodically down well-trodden paths oriented around well-established policies and procedures. If your request somehow cuts against the inertia or, worse yet, threatens to disrupt it, good luck! But perhaps your fundamental need could be accommodated within the confines of the existing policies and procedures?

In sum, on the basis of issues like these, I think it’s fair to say that negotiators face particular challenges in organizations. But hopefully an awareness of these challenges, coupled with the tentative suggestions above, provides at least the contours of a roadmap for diffusing intra-organizational challenges. Good luck!

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.