mardi 20 août 2013

The Curse of Negotiation Phobia

Some people relish negotiation. Many others loathe it.
Arnaud Karsenti, a real estate entrepreneur in Florida, is proudly in the first category. “I love negotiation,” he says. “The hairier the better!”
But then there’s Chris Robbins, an emergency room physician in a Boston hospital. Chris is the kind of doctor I’d want if I were wheeled in on a stretcher: Calm and focused amidst all the stress. But that’s true only in the ER. That composure falls apart when it comes to negotiating.
Chris craved a spot in a highly selective clinical training program but was tied up in knots about even asking for the two-month leave it would require. Such requests are unusual, and, given current staffing problems, there was a risk of looking disloyal to the rest of the ER team. The answer could be no. The prospect of a confrontation was so intimidating that Chris never even raised the issue.
People like Chris are phobic about negotiation. They’ll do anything to avoid pushing or being pushed. They’re neither competitive nor cooperative. In psychological terms they are avoiders. If they can satisfy their minimum needs, they’ll say yes just to cut short the stress of dealing with people who have different agendas and styles.
It’s an expensive aversion, of course, and not just for them. It also exacts an invisible cost on people with whom they might otherwise reach mutually beneficial agreements. Who knows? Maybe the hospital (and its patients) would have benefited if Chris were able to get advanced training, if only that possibility were floated.
Dr. Kimberlyn Leary and I were curious about negotiation phobia — in particular, how common it is and what triggers it. Kim, a clinical psychologist, is on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School. We conducted in-depth interviews (lasting three to four hours) with seasoned negotiators. Our subjects were mostly managers, all with at least 10 years of professional experience.
Kim and I used the ZMET method developed by my Harvard Business School colleague Gerald Zaltman to uncover people’s underlying feelings about negotiation. We asked subjects to bring in photos that reflected for them some aspect of the process, and then encouraged them to explain their choices. (People dream in images, after all, not in text or numbers.)
Outwardly our subjects seemed confident and successful. But all of them expressed at least some degree of anxiety about negotiation. One of its sources is lack of control. People negotiate in order to accomplish something that they can’t achieve unilaterally. That might be getting a supplier to provide goods and services at an acceptable price, colleagues to pitch in on a rush project that needs to be finished yesterday, or adversaries in a lawsuit to drop their claims. In each instance, others potentially stand between them and what they need and believe they deserve. (And, of course, other parties likewise regard us as obstacles.)
The unpredictability of the negotiation process amplifies this anxiety. Negotiators face a lot of unknowns. They can’t know for sure how cooperative or competitive others will be. Circumstances may change, as well. One manager we interviewed likened he process to a fast-paced hockey game. “Out of the blue, you may have to react to something you have been working on in one way, and then something entirely new is introduced and you have to veer off and refocus.”
The absence of feedback compounds the emotional burden. There’s lots of room for doubt and second guessing. Even if you reach agreement, who’s to say you couldn’t have pushed for a bit more? But then again, if had you pushed too hard, would you have stressed an important relationship? Everyone also expressed worry about their own competence and vulnerability. As one person said, “It’s not always clear who is the wizard behind the curtain, and who is the charlatan.”
You can see selected interviews and the striking visual images our subjects created at The negotiator who constructed the example posted below explained that the banana peels and the exposed brain represent the fear of being outwitted or even tricked. The trapeze artists and the safety net reflect the need for trusting one’s partner and for viable walkaway options. He also added a positive feature: the escalator that the parties might ride upwards towards higher value. He titled his collage “Beyond the fear, achieving results.”

You can read more about our study in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of feelings about negotiation, be mindful of how your emotions color your view of the issues and impact your behavior, positively or negatively. Sometimes being cautious may be prudent, but expectations can be self-fulfilling. If you’re concerned that the other party may be aggressive, he or she may misread your own defensiveness as hostile and respond accordingly.
Likewise, remember that people with whom you deal bring their emotional baggage to the table. And it typically has more to do with their own psyches than it does with you personally. Confirming their worst fears is seldom in your interest. You want others to be open to creative solutions, and to feel comfortable disclosing their priorities. You certainly want them to trust you to keep your promises and for them not feel they’ve been duped. Demonstrating this attitude yourself can be the best way of encouraging it in others.
Michael Wheeler is the author of The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World (forthcoming this fall from Simon & Schuster).
Professor Wheeler has been a key figure at the renowned Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School since its founding 30 years ago. During the 2013-14 academic year, he will continue to teach in executive programs at PON and the Harvard Business School, but also be a visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the fall semester and at MIT in the spring.

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