How to Lighten Your Burdens

By on / Business Negotiations

Adapted from “Gain Less Pain: How to Negotiate Burdens,” by Harris Sondak (professor, University of Utah) and Adam D. Galinsky (professor, Northwestern University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

For decades, General Electric (GE) and the Environmental Protection Agency sparred over who would pay for the removal of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, that GE had discharged into New York’s Hudson River, a cleanup project expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In October 2005, the two sides came to an agreement.

What finally allowed a deal to go through? The creation of a two-stage cleanup process with a built-in time delay. In the first stage, to which GE fully committed, dredging the river bottom was expected to remove most of the toxic waste. GE had until August 2008 to decide whether to proceed with the second stage of cleanup, which would be more expensive to implement. Phase 1 proceeded as planned, and eventually, Phase 2 was scheduled to begin in 2011.

Managers can find plenty of good advice about how to negotiate effectively for desirable benefits, such as money, other resources, or enjoyable activities. But sometimes you’ll find yourself negotiating over undesirable burdens that you wish to avoid, such as debt, environmental hazards, unpleasant tasks, or unexpected constraints on your choices. When we haggle over burdens rather than benefits, our discussions become more contentious, resulting in a smaller pie of resources, wasted opportunities, and inefficient impasses.

Research shows that we discount the future aggressively. We worry less about the future than the present, and we underestimate how much we will care in the future about decisions we make now. This discounting is especially pronounced when it comes to negative events. That’s why we’re prone to procrastinate about unpleasant tasks, such as giving a negative performance review. Procrastination subjects you to unnecessary time pressure during negotiation and increases the probability that a negotiated agreement will have to be implemented immediately after the deal is made. In such situations, a negotiated burden becomes immediate and intense.

Because we discount the future, a distant burden will seem less vexing and contentious than a present-day burden. In fact, research by Harris Sondak and Gerardo Okhuysen of the University of Utah and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern University has shown that when an agreement is to be implemented at a later date, negotiators treat burdens the same way they do benefits, and their outcomes are more efficient than when an agreement is to be implemented immediately. Negotiating today about future burdens steers talks away from competition and toward collaboration. In this manner, negotiators overcome stalemate and create more efficient deals.

In the GE-EPA negotiation, the presence of a time delay took advantage of the common tendency to postpone decisions about negative events. The delay also helped spur a partial agreement that satisfied many of the interests important to both sides.

Thus, wrap up your deals well before any burdens will come due. You might intentionally create a delay between resolution and implementation—and enhance both the process and outcomes of negotiation. Be aware, however, that delaying implementation too far into the future may allow conflict over the negotiated burden to crop up again later, either between present negotiators or their successors.


Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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