When win-win negotiation = win-lose negotiation

Many have commented on the risks managers face by not assuming a win-win approach in negotiation—and I am one. Obstinately reject all your employees’ requests, suppliers’ inquiries, and peers’ pleas for help, and you’ll quickly find yourself on the other side of a pink slip.

But, as my friend Georg Berkel is discussing in his upcoming book on learning to negotiate, pursuing a win-win with one party can often carry a less appreciated risk of its own: creating a win-lose for someone else. Since understanding the second risk is just as critical for making management negotiable, let’s unpack this cryptic possibility.

Consider the following examples: Managers sometimes receive requests from employees hoping to be exempted from an organizational policy. Or inquiries from suppliers hoping for preferential treatment in an RFP. Or pleas from peers trying to redirect resources toward their pet projects. What’s interesting about these situations is this: A simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on win-win negotiation would essentially encourage the manager to get creative in accommodating such requests. At least when it fulfills their own managerial interests in winning friends and allies, go ahead and waive the policy, wink at the preferred supplier, speak out in favor of the pet project.

But here’s what’s even more interesting: Do each of those things, thereby securing a win-win with the requestor, and the manager is bound to create a win-lose for someone else. What about the other employees who still have to follow the policy (and thus face greater constraints)? Or the other suppliers who don’t get preferential treatment (and thus have a lesser chance of winning the deal despite a potentially better product)? Or the colleagues in other departments who find their funding cut to accommodate the peer’s expensive project (and may thus underperform)? In each case, pursuing a win-win with a requestor present at the table tends to create a win-lose for someone absent from the table. And that win-lose will likely become a lose-lose when the victim retaliates.

So what’s a poor manager to do—pursue a win-win or avoid it? I would forget this false dichotomy and instead suggest the following:

  1. Try to identify anyone markedly impacted by a prospective deal but absent from the table
  2. If appropriate and feasible, invite them to the table
  3. If not, at least try to anticipate what they would say if they were there
  4. And, better yet, incorporate whatever it is into the deal
  5. Ultimately, stand up for the win-win of the collective and not just the win-win of a cozy dyadic relationship

And so, in contrast to an overly simplistic reading of the voluminous writing on negotiation, win-win is not always an unalloyed good. Perhaps it is for the parties present, but not necessarily for the parties absent (and, for many organizational decisions, many are absent). But hopefully a mere awareness of their phantom presence can nudge the manager toward a win-win for the broader collective.