Adapted from “Have You Negotiated How You’ll Negotiate?” by Robert C. Bordone, Professor, and Gillien S. Todd, Lecturer, Harvard Law School.
Breakdowns in negotiation are common. In the face of impasse at the bargaining table, managers are quick to blame either the challenges of the issues being negotiated or the hard-line tactics of the opposing parties. Yet these explanations are often merely symptoms that mask another problem: the failure to negotiate explicitly an effective negotiation process.
How should you negotiate your negotiation process? Before talks begin, explain to your counterpart what you hope to accomplish and how you propose to go about achieving these goals. If the other side envisions a different process, you must negotiate how to proceed.
If you prefer an interest-based approach focused on creating value for everyone involved, you may need to be particularly clear about your intention to spend time up front exchanging information and exploring mutually beneficial options. Your counterpart may anticipate an entirely different process, such as an exchange of detailed drafts or best offers. If you don’t clarify these fundamental differences in your approaches to negotiation, the resulting confusion will create mistrust and corrode your results.
Consider how HMO Kaiser Permanente (Oakland, Calif.) reacted during the mid-1990s after relations with a coalition of 26 of its local unions had soured. To survive in the increasingly competitive health care market, Kaiser Permanente knew that it had to change the way it approached negotiations with these unions. Given the growing mistrust, any unilateral attempt at change would have failed.
Instead, management approached union leaders about jointly designing a new process. Both sides worked together to design an interest-based negotiation process that began with joint training in mutual-gains techniques. The resulting partnership is now recognized as one of the most successful interest-based negotiations between labor and management to date.
Finally, in complex negotiations, consider establishing creative processes such as smaller working groups or subcommittees. At Kaiser Permanente, for example, seven separate task groups were formed to address issues such as wages, work-life balance, and employee health and safety. Each committee explored interests and brainstormed possible options relating to their assigned topic. In general, team members are more likely to participate actively and comfortably in subgroups if these groups don’t have the responsibility to make commitments on behalf of others.