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!

Mythical images of negotiation

Picture a negotiation. What comes to mind? Two people, explicitly negotiating for a fixed period of time, over a fixed set of issues, from opposite sides of a table. Right?

Common and obvious as that image may be, I’m here to tell you that it represents precious few negotiations in the real world. Outside of our minds and negotiation classrooms, negotiations look a whole lot different—and a whole lot messier.

Since detecting a negotiation can prompt you to think and act more strategically, thereby making life more negotiable, let’s look at five features of many negotiations in the real world. Throughout, please imagine an omnipresent, real-world negotiation situation: your desire to convince your work colleagues to do something:

  1. Multiple (or many) people: Real-world negotiations rarely involve just two people. Convincing your work colleagues to do anything consequential, for example, will probably require you to talk to at least a few of them, possibly at a few levels of hierarchy and in a few departments. At a minimum, you’ll have to CC them on the emails.
  2. Nobody (or not everybody) detects a negotiation: In the real world, people don’t typically sit down and think, “let’s negotiate” or “we’re negotiating.” Rather, they have a problem or goal, which they bring to a variety of other people in a variety of subsequent situations. In the entire duration of your negotiation with work colleagues, for example, it’s doubtful that anybody (with the possible exception of you) will explicitly label your efforts a negotiation.
  3. Long and uncertain period of time: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into a 30- or 45-minute boxes. They happen in fits and starts over long and uncertain periods of time, erupting in an explosion of activity at certain (seemingly random) times and languishing in long periods of inactivity. To convince your organizational colleagues, for example, you’ll probably solicit some informal feedback, meet with your boss, slowly socialize the idea among your colleagues, and withstand a long period of messy implementation discussions. That’s all negotiation.
  4. Fluid issues: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into 1-4 discrete and mutually exclusive issues, easily quantified. They involve an uncertain set of issues at the outset, at best. Subsequently, some issues meander onto the table unexpectedly. And other issues fall by the wayside inexplicably. You probably won’t anticipate all of your colleagues’ concerns with your suggestion at the outset, for example, nor will all of those concerns necessarily have anything to do with the final solution.
  5. Fluid communications: In the real-world, precious few negotiations occur in formal meetings at physical tables. Sure, you’ll have a few formal meetings to promote your plan, but you’ll also have an array of phone calls, Skype calls, emails, water-cooler chats, and chance encounters in the elevator. The entire messy process is a negotiation.

From this discussion, it’s easy to see that the negotiations in our minds look very little like many of the negotiations in our real lives. It seems that we hold mythical images of negotiation in addition to mythical images of negotiators. In both cases, it’s important to recognize the differences, as we’ll otherwise fail to deploy our best negotiation skills (or succeed in deploying the wrong ones). So here’s hoping this post helps you identify the negotiations and negotiators you’ll most likely in the real world.