3 Keys to Effective Leadership in Difficult Negotiations

Learn how effective leadership and targeted strategies can break through impasse and conflict in difficult negotiations.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

effective leadership

A medical facility might not be the first place you think of for effective leadership in a negotiation. But that’s precisely what took place between a doctor and his patients. At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City, a leading cancer research and treatment institution, doctors often will advise men who are diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer (and who have certain other characteristics) to follow a course of “active surveillance.” Because such cancers often progress very slowly, the doctors encourage these patients to engage in frequent monitoring and testing rather than undergo treatments, such as surgery and radiotherapy, that can cause serious side effects.

Until recently, only about 60% of the hospital’s patients who were recommended active surveillance followed their doctors’ advice; the rest opted for one of the treatment options. One surgeon, Dr. Behfar Ehdaie, was vexed by this situation. He tried hard to convince his patients to accept his active-surveillance recommendation (which, if anything, would go against his financial incentive to perform surgery), yet a substantial minority refused. How could he employ effective leadership to convince them that aggressive treatment was likely to cause more problems than their cancer ever would and was highly unlikely to improve their life expectancy?

Claim your FREE copy: The New Conflict Management

In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School - The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

In negotiation, success sometimes hinges on our ability to convince someone that our proposed solution would benefit him more than the option he favors. In his book, Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (without Money or Muscle) (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2016), Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra examines this type of challenge, among many others, as he unveils strategies for effective leadership in situations where deadlock or conflict seems insurmountable. Moving beyond our opening story, how can you defuse tensions when no one seems willing to back down? How can you negotiate effectively when the other party seems to have all the power and you lack resources?

Malhotra identifies three important but often-overlooked levers that lead to breakthroughs in even the most difficult negotiations: (1) the power of framing, (2) the power of process, and (3) the power of empathy. By changing how we structure and articulate proposals, looking at process decisions more carefully, and examining other parties’ interests and perspective more methodically, we can overcome stalemate, antagonism, mistrust, and complexity, and clear a path to agreement.

3 Tools of effective leadership in navigating difficult negotiations

  1. The power of framing

Most of us understand that when weighing an important decision, we should engage in a thorough cost-benefit analysis of our options. Instead, however, many of us often begin the decision-making process by asking ourselves a simple question: What does a person like me do in a situation like this? Our answer to this question significantly affects how we choose to proceed, according to social scientists James G. March and Johan P. Olsen. The researchers refer to this decision-making approach as the logic of appropriateness because it involves focusing on what might be appropriate in a given situation.

As Dr. Ehdaie learned in discussions with Malhotra, we can employ effective leadership by framing our proposals differently to capitalize on people’s tendency to look for the most appropriate way to behave. By changing how he talked about options with his patients, Dr. Ehdaie was able to increase their adoption of active surveillance from 60% to an impressive 95%.

First, Dr. Ehdaie leveraged the principle of social proof, or the tendency for people to look at how others behave when making choices. When we see consensus forming around a particular behavior, we assume that it signals the correct way to behave, writes social psychologist Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: Science and Practice (Pearson, 2009). In discussions with his patients with low-risk prostate cancer, Dr. Ehdaie used to mention early on that most U.S. men in their situation tend to choose treatment rather than active surveillance (a higher percentage than among MSKCC patients) and then would try to explain why this was not a good idea. The problem was, the patients heard only the first part of his message—that most U.S. men choose treatment—and tuned out the rest. After switching to telling them (truthfully) that the majority of his patients who are in their situation chose active surveillance, he found them to be much more receptive to his advice. If we can legitimately frame a choice as the one others similar to us are choosing, we can greatly enhance its appeal.

Second, Dr. Ehdaie drew on research showing that decision makers tend to prefer the default option, which often requires the least amount of decision-making effort. The doctor knew that his patients typically viewed surgery as the default option for treating cancer. Dr. Ehdaie now opens by discussing and giving prominence to what he considers to be the default choice for men with low-risk prostate cancer rather than those with other forms of cancer: active surveillance. This reframing successfully shifts the default away from surgery. Similarly, a business negotiator might take advantage of effective leadership strategies to set the default by presenting a counterpart with a draft agreement that anchors the discussion on her view of what the agreement should entail.

Third, we tend to evaluate choices relative to a reference point—for example, in a business transaction, this might be the amount for which you did the most recent, similar deal. Dr. Ehdaie found that when he told his patients that they would be screened for prostate cancer every six months under active surveillance (a very safe amount of time), they tended to become alarmed, imagining the cancer spreading quickly during the six months. Clearly, they were evaluating “six months” relative to an inappropriate reference point. Dr. Ehdaie shifted to first informing his patients that changes in prostate cancer tend to occur only after 8 to 10 years. He would then explain why it would even be safe to see many patients after five years. Only then would he tell them that he would like to see them every six months. By shifting the reference point from six months to 8 to 10 years, the doctor was able to address his patients’ flawed assumption that active surveillance was not sufficiently aggressive.

As Dr. Ehdaie’s experience shows, making simple low- or no-cost changes to how you frame your proposals can dramatically affect how the other party receives them. The next time you feel stuck in a negotiation, think about how you can frame or reframe your proposal to enhance its appeal.

  1. The power of process

Back in 1983, two of the founders of Sun Microsystems, Vinod Khosla and Scott McNealy, began negotiating for $10 million in start-up funding from a Fortune 100 company that was interested in getting access to the technology Sun was developing, Malhotra recounts in Negotiating the Impossible. In the negotiations that followed, the firm’s CEO agreed to invest $10 million in Sun in return for 10% equity. The parties shook hands on the deal and agreed to meet again the following week.

Expecting to wrap up the final details at the next meeting, Khosla and McNealy were stunned to find the CEO flanked by a dozen people, including bankers and lawyers, who relaunched the deal discussions from square one. “As far as the investors were concerned, the investment size and the valuation were still entirely up for grabs,” writes Malhotra. When Khosla told the group that he thought they had already agreed to key deal terms, the investors deliberated but then continued to demand that the negotiating begin from scratch.

Was the CEO’s team playing hardball, merely disorganized, or trying to impress their boss? Despite their need for the deal, the Sun cofounders calculated that the Fortune 100 company also needed them and decided not to yield the value they’d already negotiated. They left the meeting and resisted the urge to follow up by phone. A few days later, the CEO called Khosla and agreed to go back to the original deal terms.

In the business world, it’s common for negotiators to rush into discussions about substance without having negotiated the process they will follow, according to Malhotra. But when we fail to take time to negotiate and gain commitment on the process, misunderstandings, conflict, and poorly thought-out deals are likely.

Effective leadership in a negotiation requires discussing key elements of the process with the other party, including the scope of your talks and who needs to be involved and to sign off on any deal you might reach. Agree on how often and where you will meet, set deadlines, and discuss potential political or bureaucratic hurdles. Throughout the negotiation that follows, continue to discuss the process, including what you have pinned down already and how far you still need to go.

  1. The power of empathy

Sometimes when an impasse or a conflict develops, it’s not because of framing or process issues; rather, it’s because you haven’t fully understood the interests and perspective of the other party.

Consider the case of “Sam,” a successful entrepreneur and former student of Malhotra’s. A large U.S. retailer had decided to switch from a U.S. supplier to an Asian company for a unique type of apparel that it sold. Based on Sam’s experience in the Asian manufacturing landscape, the retailer hired him to be its point person with the Asian supplier. Sam’s company was in a position to earn more than $1 million annually for coordinating the purchase and sale of the product.

But a few months into the agreement, the deal went south: the U.S. supplier that the retailer had dropped sued Sam, the retailer, and the Asian company for patent infringement. For various reasons, Sam became the primary target of the lawsuit. Though he believed he’d done nothing wrong, Sam offered the supplier several hundred thousand dollars to avoid an expensive lawsuit. The supplier rejected the offer and pursued the lawsuit. Eventually, Sam’s company lost in court—to the tune of almost $2 million. His lawyers told him he had three options: (1) Pay the money, (2) appeal the decision, or (3) try to settle again out of court, using the somewhat weak threat of appeal as leverage.

Sam chose none of the above. Instead, he took a deeper look at the supplier and its interests. It might achieve a short-term windfall of $2 million from him, but because its lawsuit had burned bridges with the retailer, it would be stuck with no ability to get its product into the retailer’s stores.

After consulting with the retailer, Sam met with the CEO of the U.S. supplier and proposed becoming its intermediary with the retailer. The CEO was intrigued by the idea. Together, they hammered out the following deal: (1) Sam would pay a few hundred thousand dollars to settle the lawsuit; (2) Sam’s company would become the exclusive intermediary between the U.S. supplier and the retailer (earning a couple million dollars in the years ahead); and (3) his company would become the exclusive distributor for the U.S. supplier overseas.

Sam’s effective leadership and ability to envision a way to turn his adversary into his partner was remarkable, but such thinking is within reach of us all. We can achieve it by empathizing with our adversaries—seeking to understand their motivations, interests, and constraints, writes Malhotra. Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy allows us to see how we ourselves can benefit from collaborating with those we might otherwise view as an adversary or a competitor. By exploring the other side’s perspective and identifying what she has to gain from dealing with us, we may be able to identify new ways to create value and overcome conflict, as Sam did.

3 principles to help you get unstuck

  1. Reframe your proposals to make them more compelling to your counterpart and help her back down without losing face.
  2. Negotiate the process you will follow before diving into substance.
  3. Empathize to identify the interests, constraints, alternatives, and perspective of the other side.

How have you used the principles of effective leadership to work through a difficult negotiation?

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
501 Pound Hall
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

tel 1-800-391-8629
tel (if calling from outside the U.S.) +1-301-528-2676
fax 617-495-7818