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!

The best-kept secrets of non-leader negotiators

My last post discussed how organizational leaders negotiate. But a nettlesome fact remains: Many of us are not leaders! We find ourselves farther down the food chain, sometimes much farther.

So a nettlesome question remains: How can non-leaders negotiate?

Since the practices of the most effective non-leader negotiators can make many people’s lives negotiable, let’s consider five of their best-kept secrets:

  1. Dropping subtle hints and popping subtle questions: Meetings to make important decisions are often populated by leaders and non-leaders alike. Sure, the non-leaders’ primary role may be to take notes or make sure the meeting ends on-time. But the most effective non-leader negotiators identify at least the occasional opportunity to drop a subtle hint or ask a subtle question about the subject matter—hints and questions that often redirect the conversation or surface a surprisingly glaring concern.
  2. Being polite: In a world of shockingly impolite people, unadulterated and unexpected politeness acquires immense value. Simply and consistently approaching leaders with a smile and an authentic interest in how they’re doing and what they’re worrying about goes an awfully long way when leaders need a sounding board—particularly a sounding board who has not been required to drink the Kool-Aid by virtue of their leadership position.
  3. Developing powerful allies: Contrary to popular perceptions of negotiation, there’s no rule requiring the best negotiators to fly solo, singlehandedly crushing a piteous counterpart into a pulp. The most effective non-leader negotiators know that all-too-well, and they don’t even try to fly solo. They identify powerful allies who have the organizational leverage to represent their point-of-view—and, more importantly, the willingness to.
  4. Maintaining strict neutrality: Ironically in light of the last point, the most effective non-leader negotiators also pull a Switzerland. Even as they develop allies to stick up for them when it counts, they don’t take a side among competing factions or become a pawn in somebody else’s game of thrones. Sitting at the bar after work, with everyone liquored up and gossiping about the people in the other faction, they chortle but resist the temptation to contribute another caustic comment. Sure, they won’t have nearly as much fun at the bar. But they’ll build a bedrock of trust with both factions, whichever one wins.
  5. Being more prepared: Non-leaders rarely have more organizational power than leaders. But they do tend to have more of another critical resource: time. Sure, no one has much time. But the average non-leader does have more of by comparison. And the most effective non-leader negotiators leverage their comparative advantage to the full, spending their additional time preparing for meetings and decisions in excruciating detail. Simply by commanding the facts, they tend to direct the conversation.

So how do the most effective non-leaders negotiate? As in the case of like leaders, little like we imagine. Subtly, quietly, and slowly counteracting their subordinate role, they accumulate the social capital needed to lead anyway.

What are some other best practices of non-leader negotiators? Join the conversation by leaving a comment!

Influencing by volunteering

In organizations, tasks often arise that no one really needs or wants to do. An agenda needs to be developed; a Google doc needs to be compiled; a memo needs to be written. If it doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s job description or fall squarely onto anyone’s plate, getting it done obviously requires someone to take the initiative.

Sometimes, someone volunteers—presumably out of goodwill or a desire to take this task rather than the next one. At least as often, though, a whole lot of people play musical chairs in hopes of quickly finding a seat. Even setting aside the goodwill or desire to avoid the next task, though, these opportunities offer an often overlooked opportunity to make life negotiable.

To see how, let’s take a brief walk through the world of negotiation research.

Taking such a walk, you’ll quickly encounter the first offer effect: the finding that the person who makes the first offer tends to better achieve their objectives. Dig deeper into the effect, and you’ll find that it’s grounded in one of the most robust findings in all of psychology: anchoring, or our tendency to make ambiguous judgments by focusing on whatever information happens to be before us at judgment-time. First offers matter because the second offerer uses them as a point-of-reference.

What in the world does this have to do with organizational tasks? Well, taking the initiative often amounts to making the first offer. In other words, avoiding the inclination to play musical chairs often allows you to put your own stamp on the agenda, the Google doc, the memo. Since somebody has to develop the agenda (which will inevitably influence the topics and their order), somebody has to compile the Google Doc (which will inevitably influence the facts considered and how), and somebody has to write the memo (which will inevitably influence its tone), it might as well be you. That way, you’ll claim at least some of the organizational influence so many people claim to eagerly covet.

Now, like any advice based on any decision-making bias (e.g., anchoring), you’ll have to use this one with extreme ethical caution. While it’s true that somebody has to do the stuff above, if you do it with devious intentions, you’ll not only curtail your influence—you’ll eliminate any semblance of goodwill. So don’t omit a key item from the agenda, key fact from the Google Doc, or key finding from the memo (for example).

And you’ll obviously have to be selective, volunteering for the tasks where you care rather than everything that crosses the transom.

Act ethically and choose selectively, though, and you may find your influence starting to wax. Because the fact remains that somebody has to do it. If you care about it and can find the time, it might as well be you.

Responding to organizational stupidity: To highlight or understand?

People in organizations make stupid statements all the time. They get the facts wrong in presentations. They make nonsensical statements in meetings. They portray an undoubtedly incorrect conclusion as the Gospel truth.

Assuming you want to respond to a stupid statement, you face a choice. Should you highlight the stupidity latent in the statement, or should you try to understand its source? In my experience, one of these choices is more appealing to most people, but the other can make life more negotiable.

To see which is which, let’s conduct a thought experiment (inspired by Pascal’s famous wager): Suppose you’re sitting in a presentation, and the person presenting—a visitor from another department, perhaps—keeps saying something that strikes you as patently wrong. It’s time to ask questions, and you now face a choice: use your question to highlight the stupidity of the statement (e.g., “Why do you keep saying X when it’s Y?”) or use it to try and understand the source of the stupidity (e.g., “Can you tell me more about your thinking on X?”)?

Having heard one of those questions, the presenter then responds. And here’s the critical question: What’s everybody else in the room going to think of you and presenter after they do? A moment’s reflection suggests that it depends the presenter’s response—namely, whether they have any semblance of a good reason for saying X, even though you think it’s Y. As anyone who has worked in an organization knows, they very well may not—but they just well may.

Let’s consider the four possibilities, along with the likely perceptions of the others in the room:

  1. You highlight the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. But everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  2. You highlight the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. Everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  3. You try to understand the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everything thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. Everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.
  4. You try to understand the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. But everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.

Obviously, I’m overstating others’ perceptions for dramatic effect. But it’s easy to see your best possible outcome (#3) occurs when you try to understand the stupidity, and your worst outcome (#2) when you highlight it. Additionally, consider decades of research showing that people place more emphasis on a person’s warmth than their competence when making interpersonal judgments—they generally care more about a person’s benevolence than their brains. And consider recent research showing that people may place even more emphasis on a person’s integrity, which would seem to overlap somewhat with the above qualities of humility and maturity. Both streams of research would suggest that the worst possible outcome you could get by trying to understand the stupidity (#4) is better than the best outcome you could get by highlighting it (#1).

In short, if you buy my predictions and the research I just mentioned, it rarely makes sense to highlight the stupidity. Unfortunately, that option seems to hold a nearly boundless appeal for many members of organizations. Little do they know they’re making life less negotiable…

How do you respond to stupid comments in organizations?

Don’t ask why! Negotiate with someone else.

Those of us who work in organizations—by which, I mean most of us—at least occasionally get responses we don’t like. That expense is not reimbursable; that laptop is not available; that TPS report is not acceptable without its cover sheet. It’s a fact: our organizations’ policies don’t always agree with our priorities. Although we probably can’t hope to rewrite the policies, there’s at least one thing we can do to make our post-response lives more negotiable: don’t negotiate with other people who can’t change the policies either.

It sounds simple—and it is. If the expected outcome of a negotiation with the person who delivered the annoying news is the same as the annoying news itself, why waste the time discussing it? Worse yet, if the expected outcome is the same annoying news plus an annoyed person on the other end, why risk the additional and spreading annoyance? And yet, nearly everyone’s temptation in the wake of some unpleasant news is to negotiate with the person who delivered it:

  • Dear finance department, WHY isn’t that expense reimbursable?
  • Dear IT department, WHY isn’t that laptop available?
  • Dear TPS department, WHY is that cover sheet so essential?

This response is understandable in light of the seeming silliness of certain organizational policies. And it’s consistent with my previous advice to ask why. But it’s still not the best response for an embarrassingly obvious reason: the person who delivers such news is usually not the same person who created the policy or has any ability to amend it. So initiating an immediate negotiation is not only fruitless; it’s also likely to prompt irritation that turns the messenger against you the next time a similar policy needs enforcement.

Making life negotiable, then, requires a polite thank you, followed by a careful assessment of the relevant organizational policy and the person or group who created it. Perhaps this assessment, combined with the passage of time, will reveal that a delayed negotiation is just as fruitless an immediate negotiation. Is the TPS report worth the CEO’s time? Or maybe it will reveal that a negotiation would actually help. But with the benefit of some contemplation, you’ll now negotiate with a deep understanding of the policy and a real decision-maker across the table.

Have you ever negotiated with the bearer of bad news, only to realize you should’ve been negotiating with someone else?