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Delicate Negotiations

Delicate Negotiations

Hammering out agreements with your staff, peers and bosses doesn't have to be an all-in brawl if you know how to bargain wellWhether you're a project manager sandwiched between a functional area boss and the staff members you "oversee" or a CIO lobbying business unit managers, you're likely to find yourself trying to sway people over whom you have no formal authority. Negotiation may be the best tool managers have to get people to do what needs to be done - short of outright bribery, of course.

Most people tend to think of negotiation as a contest between adversaries, a situation in which one side must win completely and the other must lose everything. Fight hard, concede nothing - or as little as possible. While that might be true of negotiation that occurs while haggling over the price of a car or between corporations and unions (each with high-priced, tenacious lawyers on retainer), in the typical workplace, negotiation is more about give-and-take than winner-take-all.

Negotiation can satisfy both parties, leaving everyone involved better off. If it's handled well, it can be a process in which the parties decide together what each will give and take in a long-term relationship, whether that relationship is between peers or bosses and subordinates.

Of course, that exchange can be particularly tricky to manage when multiple parties are involved or lines of authority are unclear. At one organisation I was involved with, for example, a project team leader had to manage two subordinates over whom he had no direct authority and whose differing work styles caused constant friction between them. He could not say "you will work together" although collaboration between "Joe" and "Bob" was necessary for the success of the project. His strategy was to form a three-way negotiation.

As a result, the manager learned that Bob felt he had a lot of responsibility but had no way to check progress reports on Joe's performance, so he had begun stopping by his cube several times a day. But Joe viewed Bob's actions as snooping and felt Bob was setting him up to take the fall should the project go awry. So the project manager simply set up a structure where enough information flowed from Joe to Bob to make Bob comfortable.

However, given the tension between Joe and Bob, the project manager served as an intermediary, limiting (early on) the amount of interaction that Joe and Bob had. In this case the manager needed good negotiation skills to figure out the cause of the problem and how to ease interaction between the two. As a result, Joe was able to get more autonomy and resources. His team had been getting squirrelly from working weekends, but Joe hadn't wanted to approach Bob or the project manager because he felt he was under the gun. With these changes, Joe was able to structure the work for the people on his team so that they could get the project in on time and within budget.

One of the first steps toward better negotiations (and the one most people are least inclined to take) is to set aside the fear of conflict. People tend to interpret conflicts as personal attacks, which prevents them from engaging in constructive debate that airs divergent opinions about how to get the job done. Instead, they try to act like members of one big happy team in complete agreement. And that turns out to be deadly for organisations because you can be so blithely cooperative that you wind up leaping over a cliff together.

Another crucial step toward negotiating successfully is to understand what you want - and not in an "I want it all" kind of way, but in a way that prioritises what is most important to you and what is OK to sacrifice. Spend some time trying to understand your "opponents" and their interests and priorities. Managers often mistakenly think, "What I want is what they want." And that's just not always true. A better approach might be, "Why should they want to do what I want them to do?" What's in it for them?Once you have considered both sides, you look for overlap. What do you want that is not very painful for the other party to give up, and what do they want that is not costly to you? It's that kind of trade-off that allows everyone to gain from the negotiation. So in the case of Bob and Joe, for instance, Bob was much more concerned with having assurance that deadlines were being met than he was with checking in daily with Joe, while Joe was more concerned with feeling trusted and being able to direct his team than he was with keeping information to himself. Their compromise allowed each to get what he really wanted while giving up something that annoyed the heck out of the other.

Negotiating with Your Staff

What happens during negotiations, especially when there's a power differential, is that subordinates try a tactic that is best described as "let me try to figure out what the manager wants and then suggest that option". That creates the worst of all worlds. First, as a manager you're wasting time because if you just wanted to hear your own ideas, you wouldn't need the meeting in the first place - you already have them. And second, you're forcing your subordinates to spend most of their time thinking not about what's best but rather about what's politically advantageous to them.

In the end, you lose. Making all the decisions as a supervisor is fine - as long as you have all the answers. But people will become very hesitant to speak up if they get punished for not having the "right" answer - that is, the one the supervisor wants to hear. And they won't confront you when they have a difference of opinion. That's dangerous because your knowledge base as a superior can become dated quite quickly.

One strategy you can use is to withhold your perspective. Ask what your subordinates think before you blurt out your own opinion. Without the benefit of the "right" answer, they will have to come up with their own, hopefully honest, take on the problem. Fostering this kind of honesty is not easy, and it has more to do with your ongoing efforts to manage than specific negotiation tactics. Simply put, if your negotiations with employees typically don't go well, then you don't know your employees well enough. Do you know what they value? What motivates them? How they respond to the demands that you make of them? What their professional and personal goals are? If you don't ask your employees these questions, and prove that you care about the answers, you aren't going to be so effective as a negotiator.

Negotiating with Your Boss

When you negotiate with your superiors, you need to avoid the falling prey to the "emperor's new clothes" syndrome - giving the very response you're trying to avoid getting from your own subordinates.

On the other hand, voicing disagreement to your CEO or CFO can be tricky. If they get defensive, just as you yourself might, they will tend to put the most negative spin on your actions. For instance, if you tell your supervisor, "I think we're headed the wrong way on this" he may read it as, "This slacker just doesn't want to do the work."One way to combat such misperception is to preface your dismay with comments that refer to your common concerns. For example, both Bob and Joe were careful to let their project manager know that they both wanted the project to be finished on time and well - their dedication to the team's goals was not the issue - the specifics of team functioning was. You want to state your arguments in a way that emphasises your concern for the welfare of the project and de-emphasises your dissent. So lead with "I'm worried about the effect of X on the team's morale" rather than dissent outside that context. You want to come off as a patriot.

It's not necessary that everyone always agree with you, but your sup-eriors should at least listen. You may have thought of something that the other person didn't and that might change his or her mind. And you need to remember that when the situation is flip-flopped and you're the one with the position and pull. (See reated story - Majority doesn't rule)(Margaret A Neale is a professor of organisation behaviour at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and the director of the Negotiation and Influence Strategies and Advanced Negotiation Program at Stanford University)

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