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Negotiation Strategy: Seven Common Pitfalls to Avoid

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Negotiation Strategy: Seven Common Pitfalls to Avoid

A professor of organizational behavior explains the path to a successful negotiation.
Getting ready for work readiness training in Los Angeles. (Reuters photo by Patrick T. Fallon)

Whether you're negotiating for your firm or for your position in it, you'll do better if you avoid some common pitfalls.

Successful bargaining means looking for positives in every possible circumstance. "If I can trade off issues that I care about more and you care about less, then we've been able to create value in a transaction," says Margaret Neale, professor of organizational behavior and director of two Stanford GSB executive education programs in negotiation. "That's the silver lining."

Sometimes negotiators fall into traps and leave resources on the table because they can't see that silver lining. Some common pitfalls are:

1. Poor Planning

Successful negotiators make detailed plans. They know their priorities — and alternatives — should they fail to reach an agreement. You must know your bottom line, your walkaway point. In addition, you need to understand time constraints and know whether this is the only time you will see your opponents in negotiation.

After preparing your own agenda, outline the same for your opponents: What are their preferences, alternatives, and bottom line? Once at the bargaining table, test your hypotheses to determine what the opposition's priorities really are. Prepare a written goal and analysis sheet for yourself.

2. Thinking the Pie is Fixed

Usually it's not. You may make this common mistake when there is a "congruent issue," when both parties want the same thing. For example: In the context of an overall negotiation involving salary, bonus, and vacation, the boss wants to transfer a junior manager to San Francisco. The manager is eager for the San Francisco assignment. But frequently, the employee will look at the situation and believe that since the boss gave him a desired promotion the employee must compromise on the transfer location. The employee might actually suggest a transfer to Atlanta. His psychology is: "I can't expect to get everything I want, so I'll take the middle." The boss is ambivalent about the transfer and figures she can get someone else to go to San Francisco. You think it is unlikely an employee in a career negotiation would miss such an obvious opportunity? Neale repeatedly has performed this exercise in her classes and finds that 20 to 35 percent of the students assume it's a fixed pie and miss an opportunity to get what both parties want.

3. Failing to Pay Attention to Your Opponent

Negotiators need to analyze the biases their opponents bring to the table. How will they evaluate your offers?

One way to get inside your opponent's head and influence his attitude is to shape the issues for him, a technique called "framing." If you get your opponent to accept your view of the situation, then you can influence the amount of risk he is willing to take.

For example, you are a purchasing manager renegotiating an hourly wage contract with a subcontractor. The subcontractor currently makes $10 an hour. You are willing to elevate the subcontracting firm to $11 an hour. Another organization recently boosted its rate with your subcontractor to $12 an hour. You know that when the negotiators for your subcontractor hear your $11 offer, they may think they are going to have to give up a dollar an hour.

You must get them to focus on the point you are starting from — $10, not $12. You frame the issue positively by talking about all the ways your contract is different from the others. Your contract has some advantages outside of the hourly pay. The other side will be more willing to risk lower wages for the purported other benefits. A common mistake is negotiating from a negative frame: "The other firm's deal offers more, but we can afford only $11."

4. Assuming That Cross-Cultural Negotiations are Just Like "Local" Negotiations

You need to remember that differences do exist, that they are not necessarily negative, and that these differences can create huge potential benefits — as well as big problems if ignored. Services and negotiations need to be tailored to enhance your position with the other side.

Neale uses a case study that centers on the construction of a large American theme park in Europe. To convince local government officials that an American park would be a great opportunity, the American developers brought the European officials to a theme park in the United States.

Unknown to the American executives, the Europeans were dismayed and shocked with what they observed: highly commercialized American culture blasting from every fast-food bar, bandstand, and gift shop. This was not what they had envisaged for their quaint countryside.

Trying to dream up more enticements during the negotiation, the clueless American executives offered more free trips to the U.S. park for an expanded group of local European officials and their families. It was a disaster.

Had the Americans had a sensitive negotiator on the ground in Europe, they could have capitalized on the differences in the two cultures and offered a detailed presentation of an amusement park tailored to local tastes, skipping the junkets to the U.S. park.

5. Paying Too Much Attention to Anchors

Anchors are part of a bargaining dynamic known as "anchoring and adjustment." This involves clearly setting the parameters for negotiation. For example, a couple was selling their house for $500,000. The first offer came in at $375,000, which was too low to consider. If the couple had acknowledged the offer with a counter, they would have started bargaining somewhere between $500,000 and $375,000. Instead, they responded that it was not a reasonable offer and told the buyers to come back when they had a decent offer. The buyers came back at $425,000. The seller then countered at $495,000. The buyers then came up to $430,000, but the sellers still didn't accept the offer.

The buyers argued that they had come up $55,000 from $375,000. But the sellers were careful to remind them that $375,000 was not their starting point; rather, it was $425,000, the first reasonable offer. Using that anchor, the sellers argued that they had come down $5,000 from $500,000 — and the buyer had come up $5,000 from $425,000. Both had moved the same amount in negotiations. One more round of bidding had the house sold — for a price well above the buyer's initial bid. "The point is: You've got to watch the anchors and where they are set," says Neale.

6. Caving in Too Quickly

Accepting a well-priced deal too quickly can cause anger on the other side, too. If you list a used car for $5,000, you might really be thinking of accepting $4,500. But when your first buyer has it checked by a mechanic and then immediately writes you a check for $5,000 without trying to bargain, how do you feel? Disappointed. You'll think you sold it for too little. The lesson is: No matter what the price, even if it's fair, always offer less — if only to make your opponent feel good about the deal. You may come up to full price in the end, but at least your opponent will feel as if he made you work for it. "Never give anyone their first offer; it makes them crazy," says Neale.

7. Don't Gloat

Finally, when you've cut a sweet deal, never do the dance of joy in public by turning to your opponents and telling them you would have done it for less. Gloating will only drive your opponent to extract the difference from you sometime in the future. Today, flagging corporate allegiances and rampant job hopping make it essential to keep on professional terms with your negotiating opponents. You may find yourself on the same side of the bargaining table one day.

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