Negotiating with Your Boss: Secure Your Mandate and Authority for External Talks

Negotiating with your boss might not be at the top of your to-do list when facing talks with external counterparts. But if you want your business negotiations to proceed smoothly, it should be.

By — on / Leadership Skills

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When thinking about how to negotiate with your boss, you likely focus on negotiations over your salary, responsibilities, and workload. But negotiating with your boss can also set you up for success in negotiations outside your organization.

Many of us have been frustrated by a superior’s involvement in a negotiation, whether because they micromanaged talks, contradicted our strategy, or didn’t give us the authority needed to sign off on a deal. Negotiating with your boss over these issues before dealmaking can help.

Saving a Deal from the Boss

Consider the unusual directive that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) secretary general Jens Stoltenberg gave the 29 NATO ambassadors as they geared up to finish negotiating a new declaration on national security in Brussels in July 2018. At the request of then–U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, Stoltenberg asked the ambassadors to break with tradition by finalizing an agreement before rather than during the meetings, the New York Times reports. Why? Bolton wanted to minimize the odds that his boss, U.S. president Donald Trump, would blow up the deal upon his arrival in Brussels—and perhaps disrupt the NATO alliance.

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The ambassadors complied, quickly tying up the loose ends on an unusually bold declaration that reaffirmed the alliance’s strength, in defiance of Russia as well as Trump’s anti-NATO tweets and statements. When Trump arrived, he made a vague threat of withdrawing the United States from NATO, but the declaration was approved as negotiated.

When representing your organization—in government negotiations, business negotiations, and beyond—directly undermining your boss’s plans is rarely a good idea. A better approach? Try negotiating with your boss over your negotiating mandate, authority, and their involvement before talks begin.

Negotiating with Your Boss over 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.

To secure your mandate, consider negotiating with your boss and other leaders, such as department heads. Talk to anyone who would need to sign off on an agreement and potential deal spoilers. Advocate for 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 they don’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.

Maintain Your Autonomy

Once talks begin, keep your superiors updated 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 them 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 an 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.

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 the deal is still worth pursuing, you might consider involving them. But instead of telling your counterparts that your boss will be joining you at the table, you might suggest getting your bosses to try to sort things out on their own. Because your counterparts likely won’t want to tell their boss they need help, this move might motivate them to soften their demands without involving superiors.

What if you have a well-meaning boss whose feedback and interference are threatening to take the negotiation off the rails? Offer suggestions on strategy, and allow your boss to take ownership of them. Then continue to keep your boss in the loop, bringing them to the table only after you’ve exhausted all other options, recommends Subramanian.

What other advice do you have for negotiating with your boss over their role in external negotiations?