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.

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!