Flexibility is Essential to your Ability
Style flexibility is one of the hallmarks of the master negotiator. To master every negotiating situation and resolve varied conflicts, you need to adjust your approach to each. This is a little like dressing for the correct sport before you go onto the playing field. Don’t show up with shin guards and cleats for a tennis tournament (or show up for a soccer game in white shorts and carrying a can of green tennis balls). And make sure you know how to play both tennis and soccer well enough that you can win either depending on which you find yourself playing!
Athletes may not be able to switch games easily and still be the best at both, but master negotiators should be able to. That’s because we’re playing the bigger negotiating game, and it sometimes requires us to suit up for one type of negotiation, and other times another. Getting ready for negotiation is more like staying in shape to play either tennis or soccer; although there may be some difference in the unique skills, both require a strong degree
of basic athletic conditioning.
Here’s an example of the need for flexibility. The CEO of a regional furniture manufacturer is examining his schedule for the day. It looks like this:
9:00 Meet with a delegation from the mayor’s office to discuss their request for company sponsorship of new
playing fields for the town’s youth sports.
10:00 Conference call with the company’s attorney and
lawyers who are representing a laid-off employee who
has claimed age discrimination.
12:00 Lunch with sales staff at a local restaurant to celebrate
their success at exceeding their quarterly sales goals.
1:15 Following lunch, meet with the sales manager, who has
asked for an increase in the commission rate for sales people and is waiting for a response.
1:45 Review proposals from several bidders to upgrade an
important piece of equipment in the plant.
3:00 Talk with the head of another furniture company, who
wants to explore the idea of a merger.
In the great game of negotiation, you should always take a moment to think about what type of negotiation you are entering. Don’t just start negotiating. If you haven’t determined what the game is, you’ll often find yourself playing the wrong game.
The executive whose calendar we peeked at above will have to use several different types of strategies during the day. In the first meeting, with a representative of the mayor’s office, it’s probably a good idea to be friendly and open. A good long-term relationship with the community is clearly important. Nevertheless, this isn’t one of those deals of a lifetime that are worth a lot of time and attention. If the mayor’s office asks for a modest donation, it’s probably appropriate to just accommodate the request with a yes and move on to the next item on the agenda. If the request is for more than our executive can comfortably accommodate, then he might suggest a compromise and offer some smaller amount. He could also offer to help find other local companies that might provide sponsorships.
In the next meeting, a conference call with the attorneys involved in an employee dispute, the executive will need to take a different tack. He probably wants to be quite open with the company’s attorney in private, but when talking to the attorneys for the former employee, careful competition is probably the best approach. He should be guarded about what he says, since he does not want to say anything that makes the company more legally
liable or damages the company’s ability to challenge the lawsuit.
Nor should he make any commitments or give any firm answers in a meeting like this. “Taking it under advisement” is the best approach. Whatever the other side asks, threatens, or offers should be discussed in private with the firm’s lawyer (putting the call on hold or talking after the call) and before giving a firm response.
But he’ll need to sound concerned and should be sure the former employee’s attorneys feel they can trust him to consider whatever offer they make and get back to them fairly promptly.
The celebratory lunch with the sales staff should be handled in a positive, friendly style. But the CEO has to keep in mind that there is, in the background, a proposal for higher sales commissions and that the salespeople are probably aware of this and eager to get his response. He’ll probably want to avoid the topic if it comes up during lunch and wait until his meeting with the sales manager before discussing it.
Before he meets with the sales manager, the CEO needs to study the numbers, perhaps consult his finance and accounting staff, and think about how much more commission the firm can afford to pay. He should know what his negotiating range is, so as not to get talked into a bigger raise than is in the firm’s best interests. It would probably be helpful to know what comparable companies in the area are paying their salespeople. He also needs to think about and perhaps learn more about whatever issues are behind the sales manager’s proposal. If sales force motivation or
performance is slipping or it is proving hard to hire or retain competent salespeople, a raise might make sense. But in this case, performance is up, and salaries are already better than the regional average, so what needs fixing? He might try to reframe this negotiation. Perhaps the salespeople really need some form of special recognition for their good work, but it doesn’t need to be a raise.
If he can shift the sales manager to a creative discussion of how to reward the top salespeople without spending a lot more money, this could become a collaborative meeting.
In reviewing proposals from potential vendors, one of the things the CEO needs to look for is the style of each proposal.
Some may be framed as competitive negotiations, in which the vendors are trying to capture a contract on terms that secure the best profit margins for themselves. Others may be framed more collaboratively, by asking questions and giving choices in an effort to find win-win ways of working together. The CEO will probably be
most drawn to these more collaborative proposals, providing they are priced in the same general range as the more competitive, arms-length ones.
The final meeting of the afternoon, with the CEO of a furniture company who has floated the idea of a merger, should probably be treated as a very early-stage discussion with the goal of learning more. Maybe Matchstick has some kind of problem, such as falling sales or heavy debt. Why else would this CEO have come to him? He should be cautious about this conversation, ask a lot of questions, and just try to find out more about the other executive’s
motives for starting the conversation. If it sounds serious after the first meeting, then it might be best approached by involving financial experts and consultants who handle mergers, but now he just needs to do a basic evaluation of the proposal and get a sense as to whether it’s serious and worth further attention.
How would you handle each of these negotiations? Would you handle each one the same way? Would you recognize that every agenda item is a negotiation and that each requires a different strategy and approach? Which of these would you find the easiest and handle the best? Which might cause you the most stress or give you the most trouble?
Like the CEO in the example, you no doubt have to deal with many, varied negotiations. Your flexibility is essential to your ability to master each of the negotiating situations comfortably and competently.
There are many ways to negotiate. You’ll become master of five negotiation styles by the end of this book, as well as learn to adjust your approach to how negotiations are framed, how you build trust, and many other factors, such as which strategy or style to use