Dear Negotiation Coach: Learning from experience

By PON Staffon / Business Negotiations

Q: I work with a group that has completed several mergers and acquisitions on behalf of our organization in recent years. We would like to assess how well we have done and where and how we might improve. What’s the best way to go about this?

A:Across all kinds of business negotiations, assessing a team’s performance can yield critical insights and serve as a useful starting point for improvement efforts. Yet most organizations don’t conduct negotiation assessments because they’re not sure how to go about it. Here are three issues to consider:

1. Who will provide feedback, and how will it be gathered?

In many settings, 360-degree feedback—that is, performance feedback from selected colleagues, stakeholders, and counterparts—is considered essential. Yet getting feedback from past negotiating counterparts is potentially problematic, as they may have a conflict of interest. Would you view a counterpart’s advice to “be more flexible in meeting our needs” as genuine or manipulative? Similarly, colleagues who have not participated in talks may not have a full picture of the negotiators’ work.

Moreover, asking negotiators to assess how well they have done may not yield valid information because of cognitive distortions in our perceptions of negotiation. For example, negotiators typically overestimate how much value they have claimed because they underestimate the actual size of the ZOPA (zone of possible agreement), researchers Richard P. Larrick and George Wu have found.

To overcome this hurdle, try to put negotiators in storytelling mode. When people tell stories about challenging negotiations, they tend to focus less on how well they did and more on the assumptions, perceptions, and theories that guided them. Consequently, storytelling can elicit more useful information than self-evaluations would. A negotiator who describes himself as collaborative, for example, might nonetheless mention that he refused to return calls to “show them we were in charge.”

2. What should the assessment target? An assessment can take one or a combination of the following approaches.

A case-study approach focuses on the structure of an agreement, or compares different agreements, to evaluate whether and how deal design was efficient in each case, given the parties’ interests and alternatives. This approach can be useful in identifying the kinds of trades or terms that created and claimed value and in better designing future deals where similar dynamics and issues are in play.

A process review looks at the procedures and tools used to prepare for negotiations and identifies potential improvements. This is almost always a useful undertaking, since most groups will readily admit that at least some aspects of their process could be better and are eager for advice. This approach is particularly useful in matrixed leadership environments, where authority and information are distributed across groups and geography.

A skills-gap analysis pinpoints gaps in knowledge and behaviors that could be addressed through training or coaching. This approach can be useful when a group wants to identify learning opportunities. An assessor who has a clear theory of both negotiation and organizational development can often effectively combine approaches in ways that meet one or more of these multilevel goals.

3. How should findings be applied?

The most powerful assessments serve as a basis for change on numerous levels, including tailored negotiation-skills workshops, enhanced preparation processes and tools, better communication and data-sharing procedures, realigned scorecards and incentive structures, and peer coaching and internal-review procedures during major deals. For example, after a recent detailed analysis of a dozen of its recent deals, one mergers and acquisitions group in a Fortune 500 company formed implementation teams around key actions, such as changes to processes and communications, with timelines and milestones attached to each one.

Taking time to design a negotiation assessment thoughtfully will strengthen the quality of the information it yields, leading to a better diagnosis and more impactful interventions.

Hal Movius
Coauthor (with Lawrence E. Susskind) of Built to Win: Creating a World-Class Negotiating Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009)


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