Negotiating the holidays: Five common negotiations in a magical time of year

With the holidays fully upon us, I thought it might be useful to recap some negotiations you’re likely to face amidst the festivities—along with some research-based suggestions for making them negotiable. I’m pretty sure you’ll face at least one of the following negotiations over the next few weeks:

  1. Deciding where to spend the holidays. Many of us will have a robust discussion with our better halves as to where to spend the holidays—and for how long. For some suggestions on avoiding a less-than-festive meltdown in the process, you might want to review this post.
  2. Dealing with annoying seatmates. Many of us will encounter fellow holiday fliers who…how shall we put this…have a slightly different take on in-flight decorum. For some suggestions on keeping the skies friendly, check out this post.
  3. Finding time for family. Many of us will need to physically pry ourselves away from our desks to spend the desired time with family and friends. For some tips on negotiating a reasonable work-life balance when it’s needed most, you might want to review this post.
  4. Counteracting predatory retailers. When purchasing our presents, many of us will encounter amazing deals. Others will encounter “amazing” deals—deals that retailers would love for you to misinterpret as such. To recognize and counteract a particularly pernicious version of this trap, consider the following post and paper.
  5. Giving appropriate and reacting appropriately to gifts. It’s the season of giving and receiving, but many people struggle to devise the appropriate gift or react appropriately when they receive the annual fruitcake. So consider reviewing the following posts on giving and receiving for some insights from the negotiations literature.

And now, here’s ho-ho-hoping your holiday becomes a bit more negotiable.

In praise of work-life conflict

Many of us find it nearly impossible to balance work and life. And most of us who struggle with work-life conflict, including me, loudly decry it.

But in this post, let me sing one particular praise of work-life conflict: a busy home life gives you a substantially stronger negotiating hand at work. How? By allowing or even requiring you to credibly refuse those annoying, unnecessary, and time-consuming organizational requests that you really shouldn’t even be hearing—but that someone is always making. Whatever its other drawbacks, work-life conflict can help make this particular aspect of work life negotiable.

Let’s make this a little more concrete and then a little more formal. Imagine Tim and Tom. Tim faces a daily struggle balancing work and life; he and his wife both work, and it’s all they can do to get their jobs done while also ensuring that their four young kids grow up healthy and wholesome. Tom, despite working in the same organization, lives a dramatically different life. Single, he rolls out of bed around 8:30 am, sips a cappuccino or three while sifting through the news, then meanders into the office an hour later. Right around 5 pm, he meanders back home and settles in for the nightly Law and Order marathon. Nor are their very different lives any secret around the office: everyone sees Tim’s pictures of his family, hanging over his mountain of paperwork, and wonders how he does it. Anyone who needs a Law and Order update heads over to Tom.

And then there’s Tammy, HR generalist. Her project of the month? “This office needs a weekly newsletter! I think we need to feel more connected to each other, as real human beings—and what better way than sharing our experiences on a weekly basis?”

Now, imagine that she approaches both Tim and Tom one morning, in hopes of recruiting a newsletter editor. “It won’t take much time,” she says, “only about three or four hours a week.” Put on the spot by an effusive Tammy, what will Tim and Tom say?

Tim will really have no choice. Much as he might love the idea of editing a weekly newsletter, there are literally no minutes left in the day. If he did, he’d have to sacrifice his “real” work and/or miss some portion of his children’s lives. “Sorry, I just don’t have enough time,” he’ll say, gesturing to his desk full of papers and wall full of pictures. But how about Tom? Well, maybe he’ll try that same line of argumentation, but where will he gesture? His “no” will be a lot less credible, and the crafty Tammy will probably know it and press him about his other commitments. With no particular answer other than Law and Order, chances are that she’s found her first newsletter editor.

So here’s the point: having a busy home life gives you a credible BATNA at work. In case you don’t feel like clicking that link or haven’t read that post, BATNA stands for “best alternative to negotiated agreement.” It’s your next-best alternative to the current negotiation, and it’s your greatest source of power in any negotiation. With a life replete with work-life conflict, your BATNA is giving up something truly important. So you can easily, confidently, and believably make like Tim and kindly refuse. With a life free of any conflict, you may have to make like Tom and succumb to the wily Tammy.

So am I encouraging everyone to develop work-life conflict (or have four kids)? No, conflicts between work and home obviously come with some major costs. But I am suggesting that the busiest among us, even while decrying their busyness, may wish to recognize and leverage that busyness to good effect in the workplace. And the most leisurely among us may wish to develop and communicate a credible hobby, or at least keep their leisure private.

Does your busyness help you to focus in the workplace?

Work-life balance as a negotiation with yourself

In today’s hurried and harried age, almost everyone has a hard time with work-life balance. The fundamental reason is obvious: the constantly increasing demands of work and life continually crash up against the fixed 1440 minutes in each day.

And while it’s technically true that we can’t expand the clock, negotiation research has spent the better part of 50 years exploring how to unfix fixed resources. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest that we can make life more negotiable by treating work-life balance as a negotiation with ourselves.

The prototypical negotiation study gives two people a seemingly fixed resource like money, then lets them fight it out. Yet, it studies the steps they can take to avoid fighting it out—how they can “expand the pie” rather than simply carve it up. By analogy, what if the fixed resource was time, and what if the two negotiators were our work self and our life self? In that case, five classic negotiation principles would apply:

  1. Don’t assume a fixed pie. The fundamental reason that negotiators fail to expand the pie is they assume it’s not expandable. Thus, two sisters fighting over an orange cut it in half rather than discovering that one sister wants the inside for juice, while the other wants the outside for garnish. They assume the orange is fixed rather than exploring how to “squeeze” more value out of it. With respect to work-life balance, perhaps we could start by assuming that time is not as fixed as it seems? By looking hard enough, most of us can find ways to squeeze more value out of our time—to take that conference call from the car instead of listening to talk radio, to do more web surfing during lunch and less during story time.
  2. Build trust (with yourself). Exacerbating the tendency to assume a fixed pie is the tendency to assume that of our counterparts are nefarious demons. But when negotiating with yourself, you should pretty much assume that’s not true. So take the time to validate both sides of yourself. Remind your life self that your work self is a good and worthy soul—a valid self that only wants the best for the rest of yourself. And remind your work self that your life self is equally trustworthy—that it’s out to maximize your happiness, not tank your career. By explicitly trusting both sides of yourself, you’ll be able to…
  3. Communicate your core interests. Negotiators often fail to expand the pie because they don’t explicitly share their priorities, nor ask about their counterpart’s priorities. Instead, they engage in positional battles in which each tries to grab as much of the fixed pie as possible. If work-life balance is a negotiation between our work self and our life self, might it help for each self to be honest with the other about what is most (and least) important? Might our work self admit to our life self that’s it really important to rock this project but less important to visit the company picnic? Might our life self admit that our daughter’s soccer game is much more important than fixing that squeaky bathroom door?
  4. Insist on your priorities (but only). Contrary to popular belief, negotiation research does not tell people to “compromise,” nor to demand the world on a silver platter. It tells people to hold firm on the things that matter most, but relinquish the things that matter less. If the report is critical, buy yourself an hour by forgetting the squeaky door. But if the soccer game is critical, skip the picnic, and only retrieve your phone to take a picture.
  5. Define and enforce a clear agreement. Negotiations are worthless unless they result in a clear agreement that gets implemented. Similarly, an agreement between our work self and life self is worthless unless we’re explicit about its terms and judicious in enforcing them. So if you decide that 12-5 pm on Saturdays is family time, write it down or at least repeat it often enough that you don’t let 12 slip to 12:30. In a word, draw boundaries and be ruthless in enforcing them.

This is not rocket science, and I don’t pretend that it is. But I hope that thinking about work-life balance as a negotiation helps you to actually attain it. Signing off in search of my own balance…