Who does what? Navigating our continuous negotiations at work

When most people hear “negotiation,” they think of buying a car, buying a house, or demanding a raise. But those negotiations only happen occasionally. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that other, more mundane negotiations are far more common—and potentially far more important.

Indeed, there’s one such negotiation that most employed individuals face daily, if not hourly, potentially making it their most common negotiation: Any guesses what it is?

Yep: Determining exactly who will do what in organizations. Many of us negotiate the specific terms of our employment continuously—with our coworkers , employees, superiors, and others. Sure, our employment contract specifies the overall contours of our job. But does it specify who will write what proportion of a report, who will take responsibility for a task that spans several people’s jobs, or who will go the extra mile when everyone else has gone the bare minimum? Since working our way through such situations can make our working lives more negotiable, let’s consider how to handle them.

But first, let’s consider why they’re negotiations at all: Negotiations are simply situations in which interdependent people with differing interests work through their interdependence. Considering that definition, it’s clear as day why our discussions about who does what are negotiations: The members of organizations are highly interdependent, especially when they find themselves on the same team. But everyone brings a personal agenda or at least a departmental or subgroup agenda to any particular task. So discussions about who does what are negotiations through-and-through.

So how to deal with them? As a first cut, I would offer the following three, research-based suggestions:

  1. Lay your interests bare. Despite the above comments about divergent agendas, most people unwittingly assume the agendas of people who work for the same organization are more-or-less aligned. But we all know the phrase about assuming, and here it applies in spades. It’s exceedingly rare for everyone’s agenda to totally align, so the first and most basic suggestion is ensuring that each individual is as aboveboard as possible as to their personal and or subgroup objectives—in hopes of identifying a way to align them.
  2. Pay it forward. Most negotiations over who does what are not one-time occurrences. They’re small nodes in long-term relationships replete with repeated negotiations. Unless you’re working with a real rogue—someone who will take advantage of your every smidgeon of generosity—I’d recommend erring on the side of taking more responsibility now in expectation of goodwill and long-term reciprocity.
  3. Negotiate roles, not tasks: A common but misguided approach to negotiations over who does what is to divide the task equally. Three-person team writing a report? Why not have each person write 1/3 of it? Because that will produce an utterly incoherent report. A far better approach is to define the roles needed to produce a compelling report (e.g., researcher, writer, editor) and negotiate their assignment.

In sum, negotiations are not just the pivotal, occasional moment when we make a big purchase or receive a big job offer. They’re the mundane and nearly continuous moments when we work out the terms of our interdependence in the workplace. Treating these situations as negotiations and managing them strategically goes a long way towards making work negotiable.

Make it easy for them!

Scarcely a day passes when we don’t need a coworker to do something—respond to an email, review a report, run an analysis, take a web survey, or offer a status update. So deep is our dependence that we’ve developed a sophisticated repertoire of strategies for eliciting others’ responses. Some of the most popular:

  1. Persuading them: Reviewing the 12 critical reasons why they really need to respond to that email.
  2. Exhorting them: Underlining, emboldening, italicizing, CAPITALIZING, or ALL OF THE ABOVE-ING to drive home the urgency of reviewing that report.
  3. Scaring them: Painting a subtle or not so subtle picture of the dire consequences associated with the absence of that analysis.
  4. Burying them: Reminding them about the web survey so unbelievably often that they take it just to stop the emails.
  5. Going above them: Taking your request for the status update directly to their boss.

These strategies all share the same goal: they seek to highlight the costs of non-compliance. As a result, they often produce the very same outcome: non-compliance.

So here’s a simple but frequently-overlooked alternative: Make it easy for them! In other words, try to make compliance so simple that they almost can’t help themselves. I’m here to tell you that it can make life negotiable. Some examples:

  1. Instead of reviewing the 12 critical reasons they need to respond to the email, copy and paste the email they’re supposed to respond to right below yours, preventing them from having to scroll for the next 5 minutes.
  2. Instead of EXHORTING them to review the report and referring them to the long-deleted message from 3 months ago, reattach it when you remind them.
  3. Instead of scaring them into completing the analysis, ask whether you can answer any questions about it or help clean up the data.
  4. Instead of burying them with reminders about the web survey, move the link they’re supposed to click to the subject line.
  5. Instead of going over their head to get a status update, complete the status update form yourself and ask them to verify whether you got it right.

In addition to coming across as substantially more pleasant, such strategies create channel factors: powerful catalysts of behavior. So the next time you’re thinking of making it harder for another person to say no, consider making it easier for them to say yes.

Let them choose! Idiosyncratic preferences at home or at work

Over the course of many dinnertimes, many parents notice a pattern in their young children’s preferences. Shortly after sitting down at the table, and whatever the color of the child’s plate (fork, placemat, cup), the kid decides it’s the wrong color. Pink plate? Oops, they wanted the green one. Green plate? Guess tonight was a pink night. And dare the parents resist the demand to switch plates (forks, placemats, cups)—that demand meaning the need to delay everyone’s meal and wash another dish? Let’s just say it’s not pretty.

Notice such a pattern often enough, and you start to devise a countervailing strategy: Let the child pick their own plate before dinner even starts! That way, they can never complain that you, the parents, picked the wrong one.

I think this is more than an idiosyncratic dinnertime pattern. It’s an example of a common strategy that can help make many corners of life more negotiable—at home, but also in the workplace.

At home or at work, we often interact with people who care passionately about a particular issue. We know their pet issue, and we know they’ll throw a stink if it doesn’t go their way. At home, it’s the plate, but at work, it might be the wording of a particular section in the report or the font size of their name on the cover.

Whether it’s the plate color or the font size, we can’t understand for the life of us why they care. Is a pink plate going to poison the food? Is a 14-point font going to produce the long-awaited promotion? Facing this situation, we can choose to react in at least four ways.

  1. Ask them why they care
  2. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then negotiate over it
  3. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then let them take charge
  4. Proactively let them choose beforehand

At home or at work, most of us have probably learned to avoid the first strategy, which tends to elicit about the same reaction from small children and coworkers. And most of us probably avoid the second, given the incredible unimportance of the issue. I’d venture that most of us choose the third, letting them choose their own plate or font if and when it becomes an issue—whatever.

I’d like to suggest that option #4 can make life more negotiable. By proactively giving somebody a choice about something they care passionately about, and doing so before the issue ever comes up for discussion, you’ve signaled that you understand and care about their input, and you’ve already helped them achieve their most important objective. In a word, you’ve now earned their trust and support for the duration of the upcoming discussion.

Sounds silly, and to you, it is. But to them, it’s not. For whatever unknown and unknowable reason, they really cared about the plate color or font size, and you gave them just what they wanted. Effectively, you let them make a choice in order to avoid a future negotiation or conflict. In so doing, you’ve not only saved the time associated with the negotiation or conflict; you’ve also created an ally, albeit one with very strange preferences.

The bottom line? If you know somebody cares a great deal about a relatively unimportant issue, it can often help to let them decide that issue before it ever comes up. Have you ever used this strategy at home or at work?

 

The power of distraction: Another lesson intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

Last week’s post discussed an important work lesson we can learn from toddlers: the power of why. Briefly, we often learn a lot by asking “why” of those who oppose us.

This week, I’ll discuss another critical work lesson from toddlers: the power of distraction. Briefly, we often have to deal with colleagues who don’t directly oppose us but aren’t exactly on our wavelength either. In these situations, distraction is essential for making life negotiable.

A common toddler scenario (other parents have told me) is the inexplicable and unexpected meltdown. Suzy is happily playing with a toy, asks to take it outside or something else you reject, then responds to your rejection with (Chernobyl x Fukushima). Immediate diffusion of the situation, parents agree, is all but impossible. Your options are to ignore her until her reactor cools or try to cool her reactor by distracting her with something more interesting. “What do you want for dessert tonight, Suzy?”

What does Suzy have to do with work? When you’re trying to convince a work colleague of something, I would argue that distraction is often essential there too. Consider the following five reasons that you might need to distract a colleague:

  1. Inexplicable and unexpected meltdown: Suzy isn’t the only one. Though hopefully more common among toddlers, meltdowns have been known to make an occasional cameo in the workplace. When you need the support of someone having issues, you need to distract them from their issues before the discussion can even begin.
  2. Talking about something irrelevant: More often, colleagues are calm but completely off-topic. Now it might be worthwhile asking why they’re off-topic, just in case there’s a method to their madness. But if there isn’t, you need to distract them from their tangent.
  3. Talking about something unimportant: Quite often, colleagues are somewhat on-topic but focusing a trivial aspect of the issue. If a “why” still doesn’t help, you need to distract them from their trees to refocus them on the forest.
  4. Just talking: Sometimes colleagues just won’t…eh hem, be quiet. You need to distract them from their monologue just to get a word in.
  5. Not talking: Sometimes colleagues are day-dreaming or otherwise unusually silent. You need to distract them from their reverie so you can understand their reactions.

It would be nice if you could just ask what them they want for dessert tonight. Sadly, that works better on Suzy than an adult. Instead, I’d suggest trying one or more of these approaches:

  1. Take a break: If they need to cool their nerves (#1) or vocal cords (#4) – or if they are way off-topic (#2) – develop the sudden need to visit the bathroom. Much like the ratification strategy, a well-executed break followed by a proactive attempt to restart the conversation can often refocus it.
  2. Synthesize and suggest: If they are somewhat on-topic (#3), summarize their thoughts in a way that explicitly connects them to your thoughts. Even if the connection is shaky, hearing you synthesize signals you’re listening, and hearing your suggestion gives them an easy way to change course. “It sounds like you’re really concerned about sales in Detroit, Steve. I understand that concern, but may I suggest that we think about Detroit in the context of our national sales trends?”
  3. Open-ended question: If they are just silent (#5), enroll them in the conversation by asking them an open-ended question that necessarily requires more than a one-word answer. Not “Is something bothering you, Steve?” but “What are your thoughts on our national sales trends, Steve?”

These techniques are not rocket-science nor surefire. But I hope they provide a framework for working with coworkers who are meandering in and out of your wavelength. Have you ever felt the need to distract a coworker?