As North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ambassadors geared up to finish negotiating a new declaration on national security in Brussels this past July, they received an unusual directive from NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg. At the request of U.S. security adviser John Bolton, Stoltenberg asked the ambassadors, who represented 29 North American and European nations, to break with tradition by finalizing an agreement before the meetings rather than during them, the New York Times reports. Why? Bolton wanted to minimize the odds that his boss, U.S. president Donald Trump, would jeopardize the deal upon his arrival in Brussels—and perhaps disrupt the NATO alliance.
The ambassadors complied, quickly tying up the loose ends on an unusually bold declaration that reaffirmed the strength of the alliance, in defiance of Russia as well as Trump’s anti-NATO tweets and statements. When Trump arrived, he rattled the ambassadors with a vague threat of withdrawing the United States from NATO, but the declaration was approved as negotiated.
This was only one recent reported incident of senior U.S. government negotiators working around the president. In his new book, Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster, 2018), reporter Bob Woodward writes that Gary Cohn, then the president’s chief economic adviser, took a letter that would have withdrawn the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea off the Oval Office desk before Trump could sign it. Trump reportedly was unaware of the subterfuge. And on September 5, the New York Timesprinted an editorial said to be written by a senior White House official who claimed to be working with colleagues to actively thwart the president’s “more misguided impulses.”
When negotiating on behalf of our organization, whether it’s the federal government, a manufacturer, or a law firm, few of us feel compelled to try to directly undermine our boss’s plans. (If we did, it might be time to find a new job or become a whistle-blower.) Yet many of us know the feeling of being frustrated by a superior’s involvement in a negotiation, whether because she hovers too closely over the talks, contradicts our carefully crafted strategy, or doesn’t give us the authority we need to sign off. The machinations allegedly playing out at the highest levels of the U.S. government remind us that it’s important to determine our negotiating authority and our boss’s role before we get to the bargaining table, lest we convey to the other side that our organization is weak, chaotic, and conflicted. The following three guidelines will help you meet this goal.
1. Negotiate your mandate.
When negotiating on behalf of our organization, we can get off on the right foot by securing a strong mandate from our superiors and other interested parties. “Whether formal or informal, your mandate sets forth what you are allowed to do—that is, what kinds of deals you may explore and perhaps tentatively agree to,” writes Tufts University professor Jeswald Salacuse in his book Negotiating Life: Secrets for Everyday Diplomacy and Deal Making (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
To secure your mandate, you may need to conduct in-depth internal negotiations with your boss and other key leaders, such as department heads. Talk to anyone who would need to sign off on an agreement as well as those who might try to obstruct whatever deal you might reach. Impress on your boss and others the value of giving you leeway to brainstorm possibilities at the bargaining table. “The more your principal trusts you, the more latitude you will have to negotiate,” writes Salacuse.
Armed with a strong mandate, you ideally will have the ability to make nonbinding commitments on behalf of your organization. Your discussion should reassure your boss that she doesn’t need to attend every negotiating session or follow up with your counterpart’s boss after every meeting. In addition, when the other side understands that you have a mandate to make commitments, talks are likely to be more productive.
2. Maintain your autonomy.
Once talks begin, inform your superiors of your progress (or lack thereof) as needed. Assuming that you and your team have the negotiation under control, aim to keep your boss away from the negotiating table. Why? Your boss’s presence is likely to convey that you have limited authority or ability to negotiate a deal, according to Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School professor Guhan Subramanian.
Moreover, once your boss gets involved, it may be difficult to extricate him from the negotiation, leaving you and your carefully planned strategy on the sidelines. The presence of the “big boss” also may signal to your counterpart that your organization is anxious, even desperate, to reach a deal. One negotiator warned a top leader in the organization that if he showed up at the table, the other side would immediately add $50 million to its aspiration price, according to Subramanian.
When you’re ready to finalize a deal, there’s nothing wrong with bringing the head honchos to the table to boost rapport and goodwill for the implementation stage. But involving your boss too early can put you in a one-down position.
3. Leverage leaders’ involvement strategically.
What if you are at an impasse, have tried everything, and have nothing good to report back to the office? If you and your boss agree that the deal is still worth pursuing, you might consider involving her. But instead of telling your counterpart that your boss will be joining you at the table, you might instead suggest getting your bosses to try to sort things out on their own. Because your counterpart is likely to be averse to signaling to his boss that he needs help, this escalation move might motivate him to soften his demands without the need to involve your superiors.
What if you have a well-meaning boss whose feedback and interference are threatening to take the negotiation off the rails? Rather than getting angry or criticizing, offer suggestions on strategy and allow your boss to take ownership of them. Then continue to keep your boss in the loop throughout the process, bringing her to the table only after you’ve exhausted all other options, recommends Subramanian.