Success as a steadily improving BATNA

How can you know your life is broadly successful? The question is often asked, but rarely from the perspective of negotiation research. So let me share an answer implicit in that research, an understanding of which can make life negotiable: you can measure success, in part, by the trajectory of your BATNA.

Huh? Let me explain.

BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, is your next best alternative to any particular negotiation. Put simply, it’s your plan B. In general, successful people tend to see the number and quality of their BATNAs steadily increasing over time. Just a couple quick examples:

  • Multiple job offers: The most successful people tend to have employers fighting for their services rather than the reverse. In other words, they have many alternatives to any particular job. Thus, they have the luxury of choosing the best option.
  • Multiple life choices: The most successful people have many choices about how to live their life. They can choose to continue working, as most of us must But they can also choose to take some time off, sail the world in a small schooner, or simply take a mental relaxation break. In other words, they have many alternatives to their current way of living.
  • Multiple friends and colleagues: The most successful people have many people, both friends and colleagues, beating a path to their door—whether to have a beer or start a project. In other words, they have many alternatives to the relationships they find less than fully enriching.

Across several definitions of success, then, the common denominator is a consistently improving BATNA. So if you’re looking for a way to measure your success, you might consider the trajectory of your BATNA.

When to part with your Plan B

I’ve often alluded to the need to develop a BATNA: a next-best option or plan B if the current negotiation fails. Any negotiation instructor worth their salt will give the same advice. But the advice also raises a critical conundrum that often goes unanswered: when to let your BATNA go. When’s the right time to exercise plan A and let your fallback option go their merry way?

Since knowing when to part with your BATNA can dictate both your economic outcomes and your long-term reputation, thereby making life more or less negotiable, let’s consider five questions that can inform a decision about letting your BATNA go. If you’d like, consider these questions in the context of two job offers, one of which you prefer (plan A) to the other (plan B):

  1. Am I certain about plan A? Plan B effectively offers insurance against the collapse of plan A. So if plan A is far from certain—if someone from plan A has mentioned but not confirmed you’ll get a job offer, for example—then it’s probably better to retain plan B.

But…

  1. Is plan B starting to feel that way? No one likes to feel like a fallback. If you’ve been stringing plan B along, stalling sketchily while they eagerly await an answer, chances are they will. Since the associated damage to your reputation may start to outweigh the benefits of a fallback, you should consider parting ways.
  2. Would I ever say yes to plan B? Maybe it’s the reluctance to say no, or the fear of cold decisiveness. Either way, people frequently retain BATNAs that they would never in a million years exercise. If you would never say yes to your best alternative—if it’s a job you couldn’t possibly envision yourself doing, for example—it’s only right to say no, and quickly.
  3. Are you preventing your plan B from exercising theirs? Oftentimes, your BATNA’s offer to you is preventing them from exercising their own BATNA, e.g., an offer to somebody else. If you are standing in the way of their doing so for no clear reason, it’s probably better to part ways.
  4. How small of a world is it? If you and your BATNA will never again cross paths—not even on the interweb—then you might consider retaining them a big longer. Are you dealing with a used car dealer in the middle of nowhere? But in the considerably more common situation where you and your BATNA both inhabit a small world, I’d suggest treading much more carefully. Will your stringing-alonging follow you around till the end of time? Will every future employer in your industry / city / profession know how fallbackish your current BATNA felt? If so, then treat them with extreme caution and respect, if only for this fairly self-focused reason.

In sum, good negotiators know to cultivate a BATNA. Great and responsible negotiators know to never string a BATNA along unnecessarily. Here’s hoping that these five questions help you navigate these ethically fraught waters.