Negotiating the Sweet Spot
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Negotiating the Sweet Spot

The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table

Leigh Thompson

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eBook - ePub

Negotiating the Sweet Spot

The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table

Leigh Thompson

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About This Book

Everybody negotiates at various points every day, be it in life or business, and it's important to get it right.

On average, people leave about 20% of potential mutual gains untapped in any negotiation. This is akin to taking 20% of the value in any deal and dumping it into a garbage canister. Finding that hidden 20%, the "sweet spot, " is a skill that takes practice but is also one that anybody can learn.

Leigh Thompson offers best practices and tools within this book to use in daily negotiations and conflict situations. She calls these strategies "hacks" because they work but don't require a lot of investment, training, expense, and time. You don't have to be a CEO, senior VP, or regional brand manager to learn how to find the sweet spot in life's negotiations.

In Negotiating the Sweet Spot, benefits include learning the following:

  • Understanding where the sweet spot is in the deals you negotiate
  • Adopting a big-picture mind-set when approaching any negotiation
  • Seeing negotiations less as win-lose battles and more as opportunities to use problem-solving skills
  • Utilizing a tool kit of "hacks" that will work in any negotiation and have been proven effective by a top expert in the field

Negotiating the Sweet Spot walks people of all skill and experience levels through simple and proven techniques that are sure to result in better outcomes for all parties and that uncover the hidden value that exists in any negotiation.

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What Is the Sweet Spot?
RECENTLY I WAS PART OF A DEVELOPMENT TEAM WITH several colleagues, designing a new online multi-course specialization. This was a mammoth project, and each of us faculty members working on it had our own idiosyncratic needs and predilections. I was admittedly one of the more “idiosyncratic” players, determined to do things my way. During a kick-off planning meeting, five of us sat around the table and did our best to balance speaking our minds with attempting to be collegial. We had to make several key decisions: the sequencing of the courses (i.e., who would teach first, second, etc.); the creation of a final project encompassing all material across the courses; the filming schedule; and other issues. I had strong feelings about all of these issues. I wanted my course to be first in the sequence (to accommodate my travel schedule), I wanted to be filmed in the afternoons (knowing I would need a miracle hair and make-up session beforehand!), and I wanted as little to do with the final project as possible. However, I did not want to come in like a tiger, given that none of us had previous working relationships and appearing demanding would create and escalate tension in the group.
Then, something interesting happened just a few minutes into our first meeting. The project director—a high-level staff member—presented what she described as a “fair and reasonable” schedule on a pre-made PowerPoint. I wasn’t pleased by what I saw on the screen: My course was scheduled second to last, I had to take the first crack at writing the final project, and the filming schedule was all over the map. Ugh. I glanced around and others seemed to be in silent agreement with her proposal.
After about forty-five minutes of indirect conversation, the meeting was adjourned. “Well, dealing with other faculty members is never easy,” I consoled myself as I stood to leave. But as I walked out, another group member said, “I actually think it would make sense to have your course come first in the sequence.” I said, “Really? Would you be okay with that?” Definitely, she said, because she had not yet written her content and needed a few more weeks to prepare. She added that my content would lay the groundwork well for the other courses. Seeing an opportunity, we quickly pulled the other three faculty members back into the room for an impromptu conversation. It turned out one of them wanted to write the final project because they were working on a large new business case; another wanted to film only in the morning due to afternoon childcare commitments. On the back of the PowerPoint printouts, we sketched out a plan that was nothing like the “fair and reasonable” default, but that we all agreed was better. Within forty-five minutes, we’d found the sweet spot!
Looking back, I realized that I’d experienced a “near miss.” My colleagues and I had almost gone down a path that would have resulted in wasted time, energy, sacrifice, and expense, not to mention simmering tension and resentment—all because we were convinced that other people held polar-opposite views, or at least didn’t agree with us. Wanting to avoid stress, be good colleagues, and preserve our reputations, we’d silenced our objections and offered concessions. Luckily, we second-guessed ourselves and ultimately found the sweet spot, but may well not have! Think about how many times in life people settle for a less-than-optimal arrangement, including near misses.
People do this so much that there’s even a name for it. Nobel Laureate Herb Simon coined the term “satisficing” to refer to situations in which people settle for less-than-optimal outcomes.1
Satisficing is the opposite of optimizing. When we satisfice, we settle, capitulate, throw in the proverbial towel. Conversely, when we optimize, we leverage all the potential in the relationship in a mutually rewarding fashion. So why do people satisfice instead of optimize? According to Simon, people are too lazy and miserly with their time to bother to think, research, and optimize. As “cognitive misers,” Simon argues, people try to minimize energy expenditure and look for shortcuts.
Now hold on a minute. As a business school professor who teaches negotiation courses, I am surrounded by people who are anything but lazy! In fact, they are adamant about upping their game, and willing to devote significant time and energy into improving their skills in every element of business. There must be something else going on. In my research on negotiation, I’ve observed and measured three “traps” that effectively prevent people from finding the sweet spot.
The “Show Me the Money” Trap
Let’s face it: Win-win in business negotiations usually involves money and other economically tangible resources that can be measured on some universal scale of utility. Because negotiation is typically equated with money, people believe they must choose between being self-interested (i.e., cutthroat) or a team player (i.e., taking one for the team). This false dichotomy results in two suboptimal strategies: people are either too aggressive or too capitulating. The truth is, most business managers care about money and relationships. Indeed, Pruitt and Rubin’s Dual-Concern model argues that to the extent that negotiators can focus on both their own interests and those of the other party, they can find sweet spot deals.2
Now here’s the rub: Most people believe that other people are self-interested. And this often sets businesspeople on a combative course. In short, we don’t see others the way we see ourselves. For example, a large study of attorneys revealed that most are intrinsically motivated to do what they do; they’re drawn to their profession because they want to make a positive difference. However, these same attorneys believe that their colleagues are strictly motivated by economic rewards (i.e., in it for the money).3 Thus people are guilty of a double-standard: They believe others are motivated strictly by financial gain, but they themselves are uniquely focused on intrinsic values such as doing good for the world.
Similarly, a detailed study of competitive versus cooperative personality types found that competitors view the world as uniformly competitive but cooperators see the world as much more complex.4 What does this all add up to? Because we see others as uniformly more self-interested than we are, we often go on the defensive when it comes to conflict, bracing ourselves for what seems to be a clash of interests. And in doing so, we confirm the other party’s views about us—namely, they continue to see us as self-interested, and they act accordingly.
Moreover, making more money does not always make people feel more successful or satisfied. How do we know this? In one research investigation, I watched people negotiate and afterward asked them how “successful” they felt. People who had focused solely on their highest financial goals and aspirations felt less successful than people who had focused on their minimum goals.5
The study that really brought the seeming disconnect between money and relationships home for me was one that I did with my colleagues Rod Kramer and Kathleen McGinn.6 We observed people negotiating and explored how people felt when their opponent appeared happy versus disappointed. We found that people felt less successful when they thought their opponent was happy and felt more successful when they thought their opponent was disappointed, because the latter suggested the person in question was “winning” the negotiation. In other words, most people reported thinking, “If the other party appeared happy and satisfied, then I must not have done that well!” However, the feeling of success was bittersweet because the people who felt successful also regarded themselves as less honorable in the negotiations. Thus, doing well financially was often experienced with ambivalence when the other party was dissatisfied.
The key point is that people care about money and relationships. So the quality of negotiation cannot be measured just in economic terms. The challenge is that most people don’t know how to maximize both—so they choose one to max out or capitulate on both.
The breakthrough research of MIT business professor Jared Curhan on “subjective value” sheds important light on how most people really feel about their negotiations. Curhan and his colleagues developed an instrument known as the subjective value inventory (SVI) to assess four concerns that most negotiators bring to any negotiation table—whether it be the boardroom or the kitchen variety:7
Feelings about instrumental outcomes (a.k.a., economics)
Feelings about themselves
Feelings about the process
Feelings about the relationship with the other party
To prove his point—namely, that people care about more than just money and economics—Curhan looked at the values that people held most dear in their life negotiations, studying carefully the elements that students, community members, and practitioners believe to be of highest importance. He even examined the satisfaction of arguably the most economically-minded group of people he could find: full-time MBA students negotiating employment packages. This would seem to be a situation ripe for cutthroat economics! Imagine that you have just spent over $200,000 paying for a degree, taking tough classes, and losing two years of income, then being in a competitive job market with several hundred similarly accomplished friends and colleagues. Wouldn’t you want to maximize your economic outcome?
But Curhan made a startling discovery. MBA students care about all four of the factors above as related to their future employment—and to the extent that they feel good about themselves, the process, and their relational and instrumental outcomes in the position they accept, they are less inclined to seek a different job the following year!
The “Even-Steven” Trap
The “Even-Steven” trap is the (usually) faulty belief that the best outcome in a conflict or negotiation situation divides scarce resources down the middle. Indeed, most people believe that the division of resources between people should always be equal or equitable. There’s a reason we have so many strategies based on the “Even-Steven” principle: “split-the-difference”; “one divides, other chooses”; “let’s-go-halfsies”; “meet you halfway”; “give a little, get a little”; and many others.
As part of my research, I ask businesspeople and nonprofessionals about ways to resolve conflicts and settle disputes. Hands down, the most common prescription I get is to compromise. “Give and take.” And by the way, if I hear one more businessperson say, “I took one for the team,” I’m going to scream!
As tempting as it may be to divide resources (like money) evenly, this is not actually what “win-win” means. Win-win is not about dividing the pie or the money or the value; rather, it’s about capturing all the value.
My teaching and speaking has shown that the best way to illustrate the “Even Steven” trap is by telling my favorite story, one attributed to the wise teaching of behavioral scientist Mary Parker Follet.8 Most recently, I shared this story with the ex-CEO of a large healthcare organization. He said, “Now that makes total and complete sense! It explains not only why people who work in the same organization should find the sweet spot, it also explains why you should find the sweet spot even when you are dealing with customers and suppliers.”
Okay, back to the story. Picture two sisters sitting at a table with an orange between them. The sisters love each other, but they both want the orange. To complicate matters, there’s some difficult family history, with a consistent pattern of competition between the sisters. “I’m not going to back down,” one sister says. “Today, this orange is mine!” To that the other sister snaps, “No way! You got your way last time. It’s my turn!” And the conflict escalates. Ultimately, they realize that preserving their long-term relationship is more important than the orange. So they agree to cut the orange exactly in half, using precise scientific measurement—“Even Steven.”
After the dividing, one sister takes her half, squeezes out the juice, and tosses away the empty rind. Meanwhile, the other sister carefully zests her half of the orange peel (to make her favorite scone recipe) and throws the juice away. After the garbage truck comes and goes, understanding what happened, the sisters are aghast: “You mean, this whole time you only wanted the peel and I only wanted the juice, and now it’s too late for us both to fully get what we wanted?”
So what happened to the sisters? They missed the sweet spot! They sliced the orange in half, falling into the “Even Steven” trap! They satisficed but failed to optimize. When we satisfice, we settle, capitulate, and compromise. When we optimize, we leverage, integrate, and expand the value. Even though the sisters cared about each other, they failed to maximize value.
Given how valuable that story has been for me, you can imagine my excitement when I encountered a real-world business example of dividing the orange. In this case, it involved the Kellogg’s cereal company (makers of Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, and many others) and the Seven Brothers Brewery in Manchester, England. Keith McAvoy, the brewery’s chief strategist and one of the seven brothers in its name, has spent his whole working life in the beer industry. When Keith learned that the local Kellogg’s cereal factory generated more than 5,000 tons of wasted cereal (falling short of quality-control standards), he started to experiment with beer recipes. His experiment led to a partnership with Kellogg’s and the production of Toast Ale and Throw Away I.P.A.—smooth, mellow beers made from corn flakes. So the brewery was able to use Kellogg’s waste, but what’s in it for the cereal maker? A 12.5 percent reduction in food waste for their UK fac...

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