As I’ve noted repeatedly before, one of our biggest challenges as negotiators is overcoming misguided mythology about negotiation. The way we imagine negotiations is simply not the way many real-world negotiations happen. A prominent aspect of that mythology, in turn, is the idea that negotiations happen at pre-appointed places and times—two people staring at each other across a large oaken table at the time indicated by their Outlook calendars.
Some negotiations happen that way, but many of the most important ones we face in organizations—particularly discussions of goals, proposals, and plans with key constituents—just don’t. They happen at unanticipated times and places—unexpectedly opportune moments when a fortuitous opening arises.
Since learning to identify the most opportune (and inopportune) moments for an intra-organizational negotiation can make life negotiable, let’s identify three prominent examples of each.
It might be opportune to initiate an intra-organizational negotiation when:
- An important decision or change is imminent: In normal organizational times, decision-makers may see your attempt to disrupt the status quo as distracting or annoying. In unsettled times, on the cusp of critical decisions or changes, your proposal may help them make sense of ambiguity and forge a clearer path forward.
- You discover you can fulfill a key need: Most of us need and want a lot of things from our organizations. But, as articulated in my book, we’re more likely to get them—indeed, more likely to get anything from any counterpart—when they need something from us too. The best negotiators are highly attuned to situations when they can unexpectedly solve someone’s problem.
- You or the issue gets unexpected airtime: Sometimes we unexpectedly encounter an important person in the elevator. Other times, we unexpectedly hear an important issue mentioned in a meeting. Assuming a long enough elevator ride or flexible enough meeting (coupled with a pressing enough issue), the best negotiators seize the opportunity.
To this list of opportune moments, however, I would hasten to add three caveats in the form of factors that make a situation—and sometimes the same situation—inopportune for negotiation. It might be inopportune to negotiate, for example, when:
- You’ve been asking for a lot: Don’t ask the person on the elevator or the people in the meeting for anything if you’ve recently been asking for a lot. Do that, and they’ll likely take the stairs or exclude you from the meeting the next time—not to mention ignore your current request.
- The other party is flustered or annoyed: If they come back from a meeting about the unsettled times in a state of distress—as is common in a state of unsettlement—now’s not the time for a negotiation.
- You don’t yet understand the situation: Simply detecting you can meet an unmet need doesn’t justify a negotiation on its own—not until you really understand the need and its context. Seemingly opportune moments can still be extremely premature.
Reflecting on the examples above, it becomes apparent how wrong our mythical image of negotiation really is. Many of the most important negotiations happen in the absence of any Outlook invites, in locations more likely to feature floor buttons than oaken tables. I sincerely hope that recognizing the happenstance, ad hoc, scattershot nature of negotiations makes your life more negotiable.
Two people who work for the same organization should theoretically have the same goals. Some even define an organization that way—as a set of interdependent people working toward a set of common objectives. So when two people from the same organization meet in the same negotiation—a discussion about how to allocate resources, carve up a project, tackle a difficult problem—they might have differing information or perspectives, but they shouldn’t have differing ends.
Sadly, many people who work in organizations quickly realize that at least some of their colleagues—how shall I put this delicately—sure seem to. At least the occasional organizational colleague appears to bring dramatically different objectives to the same intra-organizational negotiation.
That being the case, it’s important to consider our response carefully. In particular, should we meet such colleagues with the same competitive response we’d deliver to a difficult outsider? Or does our common organizational membership call for a different approach? My experience teaching negotiators and observing such negotiations, coupled with insights from negotiation research, argue for the latter. In particular, I’ve observed that spending less time “negotiating” with difficult insiders and more time convincing or reminding them that you’re playing for the same team can make life negotiable.
Want to see so for yourself? Consider tabling your “negotiation” tactics and responding to a difficult insider by:
- Reminding them of the common goal: Sometimes people in organizations simply forget they’re working for the same organization. They get so hung up on their departmental or personal objectives that they forget the common source of their paychecks. If you encounter such a person, you might simply remind them that all of us here at Acme Corp., at some level, want to deliver the best widget. No guarantees this small step will move their needle—for many, it won’t—but occasionally a small nudge is all that’s needed to help people see and shed their more parochial objectives.
- Invoking a common enemy: If you can’t identify a common objective, you might at least happen upon a common “enemy.” Research suggests that even when people can’t rally around a common cause, they can sometimes rally around a common dislike, e.g., for a competitor their company consistently wants to best in the marketplace. This approach, while significantly less tasteful than the first, is probably better than not getting back on the same team at all.
- Identifying isolated points of agreement: If you can’t find a common goal or even a common enemy, well, your task is considerably harder. Still, you might be able to find an isolated point of agreement on a small issue, or at least on the process. Sure, you can’t understand why they’re focusing on the quarterly vs. the long-term implications of their budgetary recommendations, but can you perhaps identify a small budget-worthy project with both short- and long-term potential? Or at least agree that the budgeting process should be more data-driven and transparent? If Kennedy and Khrushchev could agree they didn’t want nuclear war—if Trump and Kim Jong-un could agree they wanted a photo op—I’ll bet you can. If so, and even if the agreement has little to do with the negotiation at hand, you might at least establish enough team spirit to tackle the negotiation later.
So here’s the point: The next time you negotiate with an organizational colleague with a vastly different objective, consider tabling the tendency to strong-arm them into submission. Instead, spend more time—even most of your time—reminding or convincing them that you play for the same team. Do that, and you’ll probably come up with a solution that will make the coach substantially prouder.