Negotiation is the way that business gets done today. And women—the newest entrants to the business world—have powerful insights into the negotiation processes needed in today’s fast-paced environment.
For over a decade we have been talking to women about the ways in which they experience negotiation. They have discussed business situations that began with a capital "N"—those formal bargaining sessions where everyone comes to the table knowing that they are there to negotiate. But they have devoted equal time to the little "n" negotiations—those everyday encounters where issues get resolved and problems get worked out. To both capital "N" and little "n" negotiations the women brought illuminating perspectives to the process.
What do we discover when we listen to women on negotiation?
Most advice on negotiation concentrates on the issues at stake—how to frame them and set in motion the tradeoffs that allow the bargainer to get most, if not all, of what she wants. By contrast, the women we interviewed contended that who is at the table can be just as important to the eventual outcome as what is on the table.
Understanding "Shadow" Negotiation
Their collective view revealed a dynamic we call the "shadow negotiation." Yes, people negotiate over issues. But they also negotiate how they are going to negotiate. All the time they are bargaining over issues, they are conducting a parallel negotiation in which they work out the terms of their relationship and their demands.
This parallel conversation takes place below the surface of any debate over problems. As bargainers try to turn the discussion of the problem to their advantage or persuade the other party to cooperate in resolving it, they make assumptions about each other, what the other person wants, his or her weaknesses, how he or she is likely to behave. They size each other up, poking here and there to find out where the give is. In effect, the shadow negotiation is where bargainers decide just how cooperative they are going to be in reaching a mutual solution.
Most of our respondents are quite adept at working the problem and proposing creative solutions. It is in the shadow negotiation that they confront the hidden barriers to effective negotiation. But it is also there that they encounter its hidden opportunities.
Hidden Barriers to Negotiation
Everyone brings personal baggage to the negotiation process that can interfere with effectiveness. But that baggage is particularly heavy for women. The costs can be high for their organizations, too, since women fill almost half of all professional and managerial jobs.
The roles women now play within organizations may give them the authority to negotiate, but they are often unsure of how to bargain confidently—and for good reasons. Because most role models of effective negotiators continue to be male, women can find it difficult to develop a comfortable and effective negotiating style.
Women have traditionally paid attention to relationships, and that attention can be used against them, making it difficult for them to get others to the table and to resist making concessions once they are there.
Expectations about appropriate behavior can also trap women in a Catch-22. The forceful tactics needed to advocate effectively can provoke retaliation, while collaborative overtures can be read as an invitation to press for concessions. Reactions vary from lowered aspirations to overcompensation—both hamper effectiveness. When women get in their own way as negotiators, these often unrecognized habits produce effects that ripple through the organization. The cumulative impact on a company’s culture and bottom line can be pronounced. Opportunities go unexplored and productivity suffers.
Our interviews with professional women provide proof positive that managing the shadow negotiation does not require being brash or aggressive. It does involve mounting an effective advocacy. A bargainer’s advocacy essentially defines her claim to a place at the table. It tells the other side not only that she is going to be an active player, but that she will not, and does not, need to settle for less than she deserves. The professional women we interviewed had a few pointed tips on building an effective advocacy.
Steps to An Effective Advocacy
- Take stock of your value.
People negotiate because they need something from you. Being clear about the value you bring empowers you in a negotiation.
- Make your value visible.
When value disappears, so do influence and bargaining power. The other person must be clear about the benefits to them from negotiating and the consequences of failing to do so.
- Anticipate challenges.
An effective advocate must be ready to move in the shadow negotiation not simply to promote her interests, but also to block any attempt to undermine her credibility. Once possible objections have been identified, they can be countered.
Any good solution requires compromise. In today’s leaner and flatter organizations, top-down decision-making often doesn’t work. People simply aren’t inclined to take orders. To find common ground—that place where the different interests intersect—the parties must work together, not against each other. That requires some effort.
It takes work to draw out what other people have on their minds in the shadow negotiation. Often these hidden agendas are their real agendas. Unless bargainers are explicitly encouraged to talk about them, they will hesitate, fearing that any candor will be used against them. They don’t want to tip their hands. Here our respondents’ attention to relationship produced a helpful blueprint for encouraging creative dialogue. Often these steps, by fostering greater understanding and communication, coaxed the "real" problem out into the open and set the stage for creative solutions.
Steps to Connection
- Appreciate the other's situation.
Consider five good reasons the other party might use to justify his or her stand and create opportunities to talk about them.
- Make it easy for the other person to say yes.
Listen carefully for his or her ideas. Connect those ideas to yours and build on them to create agreements that meet both your needs.
- Pay attention to the other party’s image.
Image is a concern for everyone. How negotiators look to themselves and to others who matter to them often counts as much as the particulars of an agreement.
Negotiating skills are critical for everyone today. Although the shadow negotiation first surfaced in stories from women, it is not sex specific. The lessons gleaned from these women apply to everyone who negotiates—which is all of us all the time. The more skillful we become as advocates in a collaborative process, the more we can expand our opportunities. When we use advocacy purposefully not to overpower the opposition, but to establish credibility, we lay the groundwork for building mutual respect. Negotiators who trust each other can probe deeper, more candidly, and the prospects for innovative solutions increase geometrically.
About the Authors
Deborah M. Kolb is professor of management at the Simmons Graduate School of Management and founder of its Center for Gender and Organizations. She is also a senior fellow and former Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She holds a Ph. D. from MIT.
Judith Williams is the founder of a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the study of organizational change and how women can promote it. She has worked in publishing and investment banking and holds a Ph. D. from Harvard University
Kolb and Williams co-authored the award-winning book The Shadow Negotiation, named by the Harvard Business Review as one of the top books of 2000, and the expanded paperback edition, Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining, published by Jossey-Bass.