Business Negotiations: Spoiler Alert!

By on / Business Negotiations

Adapted from “Dealing with a Spoiler? Negotiate Around the Problem,” by Robert C. Bordone, Clinical Professor, Harvard Law School, first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

At one time or another, most of us have confronted a fellow negotiator who seemed intent on blocking even our most reasonable requests and actions. This was the situation faced by Alexis, the CIO at a midsize publishing company. Phil, the company’s CEO, hired Alexis to create an online information system tailored to the needs of their largest customers. Phil promised to support Alexis as she implemented the new system and restructured the IT department. The two met on many occasions to negotiate issues related to cost, increased staff needs, impact on customers, and coordination challenges.

Despite his promises of cooperation, in almost every meeting with Alexis, Phil proved to be a barrier to her problem-solving efforts. He repeatedly denied her request to increase the size of her staff, limited her authority, and delayed making important decisions. To her frustration, Alexis faced huge project delays, rising costs, and low credibility throughout the organization. She felt stuck between two unhappy choices: accepting the status quo or starting another job search.

When interpersonal and tactical strategies fail to win over someone whose approval is essential to your goals, the negotiation may seem hopeless. Fortunately, there is an option of last resort. Consider crafting a workaround—a strategic approach to getting what you need without the involvement or support of your adversary.

Here’s one way. If your counterpart is holding out simply because the cost of doing so is low and the possible benefits are high, consider building coalitions that exploit what professor James Sebenius of Harvard Business School has termed patterns of deference, or the tendency for parties to follow influential others on a particular course. By increasing the number of players in the game, you can restructure talks in your favor.

To begin, make a list of current and potential parties who may be able to influence the spoiler on your behalf. Next, consider each party’s interests and the patterns of deference that exist among them and with the target. Map these relationships backward to your target and construct an optimal sequence of approach. Finally, make your case to these individuals. By the time you reach your target, you should find that you’ve amassed a strong coalition.

Attempting such a workaround, Alexis listed key individuals inside and outside the publishing house who might be affected by the IT department’s ability to deliver the new online system, including several department heads and the buyers for a number of chain bookstores. After assessing these parties’ interests and likely patterns of deference, Alexis concluded that Phil, the CEO, had great respect for David, the firm’s marketing director. David, in turn, was extremely sensitive to the needs of the firm’s largest customers.

Alexis approached a buyer’s rep with one of the bookstore chains, someone she had worked with in the past. She discussed the benefits of the new system to bookstores and explained that internal challenges could stall implementation. The customer was persuaded to lobby David to get the system up and running. Alexis then met with David and explained that her project was strapped for resources. To her relief, David agreed to speak with Phil. Two days later, Phil gave Alexis the green light to hire the technical staff she needed to get the job done.

A workaround based on coalition building comes with certain risks, especially when it leads you to violate traditional channels of communication within your organization. Alexis’s decision to approach an important client about sensitive internal issues could have backfired. For this reason, enlist only those you know and trust to your cause.


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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