Dear Negotiation Coach: Negotiating work assignments with subordinates

By on / Leadership Skills

QUESTION

I recently asked one of our firm’s managers, Joseph, to be in charge of developing an important new program. He agreed to take it on and didn’t raise any concerns, but I sensed a lack of enthusiasm during our conversation. This surprised me, as I had assumed that he would feel honored and happily run with the new role. Now I’m worried he won’t do a good job, and I think maybe I should have chosen someone else. What should I do?

ANSWER

Before concluding that you chose the wrong person to head up your new initiative, take a few minutes to review what happened. You might have benefited from viewing your conversation with Joseph as a negotiation, as he didn’t seem to have a voice in deciding whether he should be involved and how. Managers often make the mistake of relying on their authority to impose their will, when a back-and-forth negotiation, though more time-consuming, would be more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

An important part of any negotiation is trying to see how the situation looks to the other party. Before asking Joseph to take on this new project, did you imagine how he would view the request? Because you are Joseph’s supervisor, there is a power imbalance between you, and it would not be unusual for someone in his situation to hide his interests.

It’s possible that one or more of these thoughts ran through his head:

• I want to take on this new project, but how am I going to get my usual work done as well?

• If the project goes well, I won’t get the credit. If it doesn’t, I’ll be blamed.

• I’m too busy to do this, but it’s hopeless to complain. The decision is made.

• I don’t know if I’m up to the task. It’s a much more complicated project than I’m used to handling.

Once you realize that Joseph may view your request differently than you do, you will be prepared to have a follow-up conversation in which you test your assumptions—that he would welcome the opportunity, be able to handle the extra workload, and feel prepared to carry it out. When you invite him in for a second meeting, you might say, “I know I may have surprised you by asking you to take on this new project, and I want to check in with you. How do you feel about it, and how do you think it could fit in with your current responsibilities?” Ask open-ended questions that will encourage him to elaborate on his initial thoughts.

If you frame the second conversation as a shared problem—there is new work to be done, and together you need to figure out how to do it—you can foster an open, collegial discussion. When you brainstorm ways to solve the problem, you may come up with an even better solution than having Joseph take the project on alone. For example, you might recruit support staff to help him or divide up the project’s main roles among others at his level.

At the same time, you need to remain aware of the fact that you are Joseph’s manager. You have the right to assign work, and you don’t want people to be able to veto or sabotage your decisions. The work needs to get done.

In negotiation, it is important to balance empathy and assertiveness, a tension first described in the negotiation classic Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes (Harvard University Press, 2000) by Robert H. Mnookin, Scott R. Peppet, and Andrew S. Tulumello. Although, understandably, your first instinct as a manager is to assert your own interests, it is also important to show empathy—not just to be kind but to potentially uncover new information that will help you reach a better agreement.

Above all, you want to end up with a sustainable agreement in which the project gets done well and the person leading it is fully engaged. Is Joseph the right person for the job? With good negotiation analysis and thoughtful questioning, you will be able to answer that question.

Susan Hackley
Managing Director
Program on Negotiation
Harvard Law School

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