Five reputations no negotiator wants

Many of our most important negotiations happen at work. We negotiate job offers, reconcile competing strategies, allocate limited funds. So it would really behoove us to understand the drivers of our success in such situations—the factors that will determine whether we walk away happy or sad.

If I asked you to name just one such factor, what would you say?

Chances are, you’d name a negotiation strategy. Aggressively insist on your demands! Persuasively plead your case! Creatively seek a solution! Or some other behavior to display in the negotiation itself.

While none of these answers is inherently wrong, I’d suggest that your success in a critical organizational negotiation is often determined long before the negotiation itself—in the many less-critical negotiations and non-negotiation situations that crystallize your reputation. Critical negotiations become substantially more negotiable, in other words, when you’ve developed the right reputation beforehand.

It’s easier to see what the right reputation is if you first consider the opposite—the type of reputation you really don’t want to bring into a critical organizational negotiation. At that point, you really don’t want to be known as the:

  1. Constant negotiator: We all know someone who negotiates every flipping, last thing. Why do I only get 10 pencils? I need at least 12! Do we really have to go Applebee’s? I’m really hankering for the Olive Garden. Constant negotiator is not the type of reputation you want to carry into your critical organizational negotiations, as everyone will think this important negotiations is just another in your never-ending string of demands.
  2. Selfish negotiator: We all know someone who, though they don’t necessarily negotiate everything, they approach every negotiation (and non-negotiation) with exactly one objective: themself. Would it cost three jobs to guarantee my 12-pencil minimum at all times? No matter, as long as I get my pencils. You obviously don’t want to develop this reputation either, as everyone will come into the critical negotiation ready for battle.
  3. Pushover negotiator: Conversely, kind of, we all know someone who never ever sticks up for themself. Want to reduce my pencil allocation by two pencils a month, ultimately leaving me with pens alone? No matter, I’ll just buy some pencils myself. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as everyone will approach the critical negotiation with the demeanor of Jaws in the presence of a bleeding beluga.
  4. Reactive negotiator: We all know someone who, despite the “manager” in their title, sits around and lets the world conquer them. They seem utterly incapable of steering the course of events, and they often respond bitterly when the world steers them. Oftentimes, they just fade into the background. Not a good idea to develop this reputation either, as someone else in the critical negotiation will steer the negotiation in their own direction before you have the chance to, well, react.
  5. Incoherent negotiator: We all know someone who can never seem to collect their thoughts. Their statements are jumbled, and their requests tend toward the internally inconsistent. Thought 1: We should all get more pencils! Thought 2: Management should really cut costs! Developing such a reputation may well keep the other party on their toes. But you’re unlikely to get what you want from a critical organizational negotiation, for the simple reason that neither you nor they has a clue what that is.

So if you shouldn’t cultivate any of these reputations before a critical negotiation, what type of reputation should you to develop? A reputation as someone who confidently negotiates when they have to, but only when they have to. And when they do, as someone who confidently or even insistently sticks up for their true needs but also gives in on their non-needs, particularly when the other side truly needs the opposite. And someone who doesn’t react to negotiations as they happen but leads the way, typically by initiating and coherently guiding the discussion.

Do all of that in the small situations before your critical organizational negotiation and, dollars to donuts, you’ll walk away with the critical outcome.

Mythical images of the negotiator

I recently attended the International Association of Conflict Management meeting in Berlin—an opportunity for negotiation researchers like myself to geek out. And in the process of geeking out, I had an interesting albeit especially geeky thought: the image of negotiation and negotiators that most of us hold in our brains is actually quite different than the portrait painted by negotiation research. Put simply, our images of negotiation and negotiators are more often mythical than evidence-based.

In the hope that evidence can make life negotiable (especially in the era of a self-identified Negotiator-in-Chief), I offer the following contrasts between mythical and evidence-based negotiation. In mythical negotiation…

  1. Negotiation is mostly about doing huge deals. When we hear the word negotiation, we think of multi-billion dollar mergers and business contracts—issues that grab the headlines and everyone’s attention. In actuality, most of the world’s negotiations focus on issues that are totally unimportant to anyone other than you. It’s a negotiation when your child won’t eat, your spouse won’t do the dishes, and your seatmate won’t cooperate on a flight. Most negotiations concern our own daily difficulties—issues that matter only to us.
  2. Negotiations focus on money. Relatedly, we tend to equate the word negotiation with the word money. And yes, many negotiations involve money. But many just don’t—consider the three right above. And in many that do, it’s the qualitative issues rather than the monetary issues that really make the difference. You’ll never get the car dealer to agree with your preferred price, but you just might get him to throw in some oil changes.
  3. The best negotiators are jerks. We tend to assume that the best negotiators must be people with whom we’d never want to share a flight or have a dinner (watch the beginning of this Facebook video where our Negotiator-in-Chief says just that)—people who aggressively demand concessions and accommodations from everyone around them. In fact, the best negotiators are the very people with whom we’d most want to dine or fly—people who listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, who trust and seem to understand us, and who ensure that we walk away feeling at least reasonably satisfied with the conversation.
  4. The best negotiators are easy to identify. Relatedly, we tend to think that we can spot a great negotiator when we see one. It’s the driver zipping around in the Mercedes and cutting everyone off. Or the CEO slamming their fist on the table and demanding that a poor subordinate come up with something better. In fact, the best negotiators are invisible—to us, yes, but often even to themselves. If I had a quarter for every time I taught a negotiation class and observed a self-proclaimed “bad negotiator” eventually get the “Best Negotiator” award…
  5. The key to negotiation success is tactics. We tend to think that the most effective negotiators use the most sophisticated tactics—the car dealer who slips in “one additional fee” after we’ve already signed the contract, or the politician who corners a colleague into supporting a pork-barrel amendment. Tactics are certainly important. Any claim to the contrary would be silly. But more important than tactics—and perhaps much more important—is preparation. If the best negotiators display the most sophisticated tactics, it’s only because they spent the most time and effort preparing, understanding everything there is to know about themselves, the people across the table, and the negotiation situation itself.

In sum, negotiations and negotiators are steeped in mythology, very little of which holds up to empirical investigation. So few of us should be surprised when our most prominent negotiators promulgate the mythology but experience much more difficulty in reality.