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.

Win-win or win-whatever? Setting our sights just a little bit lower in negotiations

Why is it that most people—even those who take (or teach) negotiation classes—still find it hard to negotiate? I’m here to argue for one of many reasons: the possibility that in many situations, most of us set our sights just a little too high.

Anyone who’s taken (or taught) a negotiation class can summarize the course in a single phrase: “win-win.” But now let me convince you of a less ambitious but potentially more common and attainable goal that can still make life negotiable: win-whatever.

A story to explain:

My two daughters recently visited a fine-dining establishment—let’s call it Chick-pat-E—both receiving the same book as a giveaway with their kids meal. Arriving at home, one put their book on the table, and the other let theirs fall to the floor. Which is which, no one knows.

Later that day, my six-year-old arrived at the table, claimed the table-book as her own, and started to read it. My three-year-old, witnessing said events, developed uncontrollable fits of rage. “That’s my book!” she insisted immediately, repeatedly, and with increasing levels of agitation. Now, I had no idea whose book was whose, but I leaned over to my six-year-old, winked at her, and asked her to be the “big girl” by accepting the (identical) book on the floor. And my six-year-old, to her great credit and with the benefit of three years, begrudgingly recognized that it really didn’t matter. So she gave the table-book to the three-year-old and accepted the floor-book as her own. A win for my three-year-old and a whatever for my six-year-old.

Now what would a win-win have looked like? Perhaps the three-year-old could’ve claimed the table-book today and the six-year-old could’ve claimed it tomorrow? Or the three-year-old could’ve gotten first dibs at the next Chick-pat-E giveaway? Or the six-year-old could’ve gotten the table-book but gifted one of her other books to the three-year-old? All interesting and innovative solutions but hard to execute in the presence of an increasingly agitated three-year-old. A win-win in this case would’ve been awfully difficult.

Reflecting on the story, is it possible that many of us find it hard to negotiate because we’re shooting just a bit too high? Are we ambitiously aiming for win-win when a win-whatever would really do? As great as win-wins can be—and I really believe it—I’d suggest that win-whatevers are often much easier to find and execute. And I do suggest, in my negotiation classes, that they’re just as important for getting to yes. So, the next time you’re struggling to identify a win-win way of divvying up housework, deciding on work responsibilities, or allocating giveaways from Chick-pat-E, consider setting your sights just a little bit lower—not way lower on conflict or avoidance or win-loss. Just a little bit lower on win-whatever. I think you’ll start to see indifference as a virtue.

My family or yours? Using integrative negotiation to allocate holiday time

With the holidays fast-approaching, many of us face a decision: my family or yours? As anyone who has made this decision can attest, its consequences often stretch far beyond December.

Dividing up family time can be contentious. But it’s negotiable!

For this post, imagine you’re married or in a serious-enough relationship to worry about the division of family time. Imagine, further, that both you and your partner have already insisted that, “It’s my family this year!” Having one family in Chicago and another in San Francisco, having one week of vacation, and having both refused to back down, you’re now on the brink of crisis. Specifically, you can only see three options:

  1. 50/50 time split: You both spend two days in Chicago, two days in San Francisco, and about 3 days flying Reunited Airlines. Obviously a bad option, and not just because you have to deal with Reunited. Two days with each family is not nearly enough: both will feel slighted, and you’re likely to feel unfulfilled if not exhausted.
  2. 50/50 person split: You spend the week with your family in Chicago, and your partner spends the week with his/her family in San Francisco. But that doesn’t sound so great either – who wants to remember 2015 as the year they spent the holidays apart?
  3. 50/50 relationship split: You could actually see this discussion getting so heated that—in combination with other various and sundry disputes over the years—it strains the relationship itself. Though that might facilitate the second option, it’s obviously not preferred.

In short, you’re stuck in a holiday pickle. But why? Because you’ve assumed that the pie is fixed—engaging in what negotiation researchers call distributive or win-lose negotiation. In other words, you’re trying to slice one fixed resource—the week of holiday vacation—rather than entertaining the possibility that you and your partner could discuss multiple resources. The latter would imply that the pie can grow, which researchers call integrative or win-win negotiation.

Integrative negotiation is a HUGE topic that many researchers have studied for many decades, and that I will write about for a long time to come. The current point is not to describe integrative negotiation in all of its glory, as that would be a 1,589,230-word posting. The point is to highlight the difference between distributive and integrative negotiation and mention some of the many solutions to the holiday pickle that become possible when we assume that the pie can grow:

  1. Trade the holidays: We spend Christmas (for example) in San Francisco and Easter (for example) in Chicago. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as only a masochist would try to fly Reunited into O’Hare in December.
  2. Trade this holiday: We spend this Christmas in San Francisco and explicitly agree to spend next Christmas in Chicago. In other words, we recognize that this is a repeated decision, bringing time into the equation to develop a schedule. Come to think of it, that sounds better, as your brother will probably be able to make it next year.
  3. Introduce a new issue: Suppose that you love extreme downhill skiing but rarely get to do it, tethered as you are to the rolling hills of the East Coast. The sounds utterly irrelevant to the holiday pickle until your partner suggests five days in San Francisco and two in the Sierras. Come to think of it, that sounds awesome.

These are not earth-shaking ideas, nor do they come close to exhausting the possibilities. The point is only to emphasize the power of integrative negotiations. By assuming that there are many possible resources to discuss—multiple holidays, multiple iterations of this holiday, an extreme skiing trip—the holiday season looks a lot rosier.

How have you resolved your own holiday pickles?