Workplace Negotiations & How to Successfully Navigate Them

A large portion of our adult lives are spent at work. We’re often interacting with others. In many cases without realising we’re negotiating. We may be discussing salary increases with our manager, trying to reach agreement on project timelines with colleagues and/or negotiating contract terms with clients. These are all workplace negotiation examples.

Negotiations in the workplace regularly take place between the following parties;

  • Employee and employer
  • Colleagues
  • External stakeholders

Looking at some examples of negotiation skills at work, let’s explore each of the above scenarios focusing on what we should consider and how to overcome some common challenges from our counterparts.

Employee-to-Employer Negotiations

One the most important relationships within your workplace is the one you have with your employer. This person is usually a manager, mentor, trusted advisor and friend. An important point to make about this relationship is that there is a distinct power imbalance that exists. This asymmetry in decision making ability can at times make it challenging to negotiate effectively.  We need to prepare for this imbalance. The best place to start is to focus on relationship.

The problem

Unfortunately, relationships easily become strained in negotiation. Rather than helping the parties to overcome their differences or contributing to a state of emotional well-being, they instead produce conflict and distract us from our objectives. Not only does this lead to greater emotional stress, but a poor working relationship can also prejudice significantly the quality of our substantive outcomes.

What causes the problem?

Strained working relationships can often be explained by the following:

  • A lack of awareness about (and hence sensitivity towards) the fact that we are constantly re-negotiating our relationships, even as we discuss substantive issues.
  • The negotiation of substantive issues is easily entangled with the parties’ views about, and attitudes towards, their relationship. This might be because of the assumptions that the parties make about each other as a consequence of their substantive discussion (I can’t believe David is asking me for leave at this time – he clearly isn’t interested in doing the right thing by anyone). Or it might because the parties are explicitly mixing relationship messages with their messages about the substance (“David, after all I’ve done for you over the last 5 years, you’re not seriously suggesting that you take leave in our busiest period, are you?”).
  • Instinctively reciprocating our counterpart’s undesirable behaviour. If our counterpart starts to attack us, we often respond with a ‘counterattack’, exhibiting the same aggressive behaviour that they are demonstrating. This is a classic example of our competitive tendency to try and beat people at their own game.
  • Conversely, by failing to raise concerns about our counterpart’s unconstructive behaviour. Negotiators often equate “keeping it professional” with ignoring personal attacks and other bad behaviour. While the intention is to send a message that “I won’t be drawn down to your level”, simply ignoring the behaviour can often send the unintended message “it’s OK for you to treat me this way – I won’t resist.”

What can be done?

The following approaches may promote a more constructive working relationship:

  • Separate the relationship from the substance.
  • When substantive goals become entangled with emotions and issues of personal identity, both the issues of substance and the relationships are likely to become unsustainably complex, producing conflict. To avoid this, or minimise its impact, separate the substantive issues (such as money, jobs, products, transactions) from the relationship (such as trust, respect, candour, destructive behaviour).

Dealing with each fully, but independently, can simplify the negotiation and provide a starting point for much needed adjustment. Here’s an example:

  • [Starting off with the relationship] “Chris, I get the feeling from what you’ve said that my request for annual leave comes across as ungrateful, because of the level of dedication you’ve given me over the life of this project. One thing I want to convey to you is my enormous level of satisfaction with the way you’ve fulfilled that project. I’ve quite worked at full capacity without annual leave for a lengthy period of time. If I’ve not given you that impression, please let me know…. [Returning to the substance] So you’re probably wondering how to reconcile my expressions of gratitude with a request for annual leave?
  • Try an unconditionally constructive approach.
  • Reciprocating unconstructive behaviour may be instinctive, or it may even be a way of subconsciously “punishing” our counterpart. In either case, it will only damage the working relationship further, and certainly won’t move you any closer towards an optimal resolution. A more helpful response to what you perceive as undesirable behaviour is to adopt an unconditionally constructive approach. In essence, this means that you should commit yourself to a constructive approach towards the relationship (aiming always to improve the working relationship) regardless of your counterpart’s behaviour.

How to Successfully Navigate Them

Colleague Negotiations

Negotiations with colleagues, even where you have equal decision making power, can at times become challenging. We need to balance a number of factors. Where we don’t have a strong relationship it’s easy for negotiators to become reliant on less than an ideal approach to get the outcome they are looking for.

The problem

Negotiating with colleagues sometimes feels like a process where the parties are determined to conceal what is really important to them, focusing instead on their desired outcome.

For example, parties may often state positions without offering any comment about why their respective positions are important to them. Alternatively, they may offer only a limited insight into what they regard as important. In each instance, the restricted information flow complicates the task of reaching a mutually acceptable outcome quickly and effectively.

Indeed, there are several reasons why this “positional” method of negotiation – where negotiators focus on their positions rather than the interests that lie behind them – can cause problems:

  • Unlike positions, which invariably conflict, the interests that give rise to them are often compatible. By focusing on positions, negotiators fail to explore and/or agree when there might have been common ground and capacity to generate options that are beneficial to than both parties.
  • Unless your counterpart understands your interests, then the likelihood that your counterpart will come up with an option that meets those interests is very much left to fate. This increases the risk that value will be left on the negotiating table, even if agreement is eventually reached (i.e., the options goal won’t be met).
  • A process which leads parties to believe that information is being deliberately concealed undermines the development of productive working relationships. In essence, it reinforces unconstructive assumptions about the extent to which each party should trust the other.

What causes the problem?

One factor that explains these commonly observed symptoms is that negotiators sometimes feel that the more they reveal about themselves and what’s motivating them, the more vulnerable they are to being exploited by their counterpart.

Alternatively, the use of positions in negotiation (as opposed to interests) may be regarded as the quickest way to a solution or may be intended to convey a message about a negotiator’s bargaining strength. Or negotiators might be assuming that the endpoint to the negotiation will reflect their initial position (this idea is called “anchoring”). Finally, because positional bargaining is so widespread, many people just aren’t used to talking (or even thinking) about their interests independently of options for meeting those interests.

What can be done?

The key piece of advice for overcoming this problem is to focus on interests, not positions. But how? And how do we overcome the fear of vulnerability in following this piece of advice?

Consider the following situation. You’re in your office when a member of the team you manage enters unannounced and says, “Unless you prioritise these tasks that you’ve given me, nothing will get done”.

  • Establish what’s important.
  • You could simply ask a question to reveal the party’s undisclosed interests (“Can you tell me more about what’s troubling you?” or “Why do you feel the need for my input?”).
  • You could offer your own assumptions about their interests and let them either confirm or criticise your suggestion (“You seem to want direction” or “Are you feeling overworked?”).
  • You could throw out a few options – noting that they’re only options – to learn more about what’s motivating them, particularly if they seem unable or unwilling to discuss their interests directly (“What if I were to delegate some of your workload to someone else or give you an assistant – which would you prefer?”).
  • Disclose your own primary interests.
  • Build their confidence in your relationship and help them to find ways to meet your needs, by offering an insight into your interests (It’s very important to me that you feel as though you have direction” or “I don’t want to establish a precedent that work assignments are changed because of threats made by my team members.”)

Workplace Negotiations

External stakeholders

When negotiating with third parties, it’s not uncommon to have a counterpart view the negotiation as a competition. With this mindset comes a variety of unique challenges.,

The problem

Negotiators often seek to reach agreement with their counterparts about complex substantive issues as quickly as possible, as if speed were one of their criteria for measuring negotiation success. But quick agreements are often suboptimal, simply because parties won’t have had the chance to ensure that the agreement meets all parties’ interests, that it creates most value for the parties, that it is legitimate, and so on. In addition, rushed commitments are likely to lack clarity or to be unworkable, leading to substantive and relationship problems down the track.

What causes the problem?

Many negotiators probably do consider the speed of agreement to be a measure of their success. In fact, it might be that your counterpart is aiming to rush the agreement through for the sole purpose of depriving you of the opportunity to fully consider the quality of the commitment (“I can offer you a full and final settlement of this matter for $20,000 but that offer only remains open for the next hour”).

Some negotiators may push for commitments early in their negotiation because of a desire to assert their power. Others, who agree to things quickly and with relative ease often do so because they feel that they can enhance relationships by doing so (especially when those commitments seem relatively cheap to make).

What can be done?

  • Defer substantive commitments until later in the negotiation
  • To promote productivity and favourable outcomes during negotiation, commitments on substance should be deferred until the end of the negotiation process. That is, until all interests have been discussed, options explored, and standards by which to assess those options selected, reality-tested and applied.
  • This piece of advice is a simple matter of quality control over your decision making, but care needs to be taken to avoid creating the impression that your attempts to defer substantive agreement are meant as a show of power. Importantly, the rationale behind this advice is intended to be of mutual benefit, and this should assist you in persuading your counterpart to collaborate in a more careful exploration of issues (again, negotiate the process!).
  • Clarify process commitments early
  • Negotiators can readily make process commitments early in the negotiation at little or no cost. For example, agreements may be reached in relation to how much time is available for discussion, which issues are to be addressed, a schedule for further meetings, authority to settle, and so on.
  • Commitments about process not only enhance the efficiency of negotiation, they also play an important role in improving the parties’ working relationship. In discussing and reaching agreement on simple process issues, an otherwise uncooperative counterpart may become more confident that the negotiation won’t be a waste of their time.
  • Reality test all substantive commitments
  • Once you’ve reached a point where it is appropriate to make substantive commitments, it’s important to spend time ensuring that those commitments are both clear and operational. You may recall some of the factors relevant to this assessment discussed in our earlier article, “Goal setting and measuring success”: matters such as authority and veto power, resources, legal compliance, and so on. Although it may be tempting once agreement has been reached to leap up from the negotiation table in excitement, the time required to reality test that agreement is a small investment to ensure that your efforts in negotiation are not wasted.

Our workplaces are full of a variety of negotiations. Above are examples of negotiation skills in the workplace that can be put into practice immediately assist reaching optimal outcomes.


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