How can organizations capitalize on negotiation experience? Through reflective practice: the process of considering the results of each negotiation in light of initial expectations and then discussing what ought to be tried next. While each negotiator must take initiative for reflective practice, to truly learn from experience, most need continual coaching from mentors.
Negotiators and coaches should be paired carefully. Not every senior manager is cut out to be a negotiation coach, and not every coach will work well with all the managers who report to him. Ideally, senior managers would provide negotiation advice and feedback to all their direct reports. However, this is unlikely to occur for several reasons: Senior managers are unlikely to make enough time available for this task; they may not be skilled coaches or negotiators themselves; and their employees are unlikely to be candid about their weaknesses. When past interactions have undermined trust, negotiators are likely to fear that a manager will hold the negotiator’s self-evaluations against them.
For these reasons, I advise companies to establish an internal center where employees can receive ongoing negotiation advice and assistance. The staff at such a center could help managers better prepare for negotiation, offer analytic advice during the bargaining process, and review the negotiation once its completed. Center personnel would track company trends and identify additional training for resources upon request. They would also locate internal or external coaches to help negotiators facing consistent problems or challenges. Such a center should periodically report to upper management, identifying individuals and areas that need help. For large companies, the return on investment in a negotiation center will pay off many times over in terms of company profitability.
Coaching won’t work well unless everyone involved has a common framework that identifies how to succeed in various kinds of negotiations. Without a shared sense of negotiation vocabulary and concepts, managers will struggle to get useful feedback on a recent negotiation. Moreover, without a shared underlying theory, employees are likely to disagree on the prescriptive advice that follows. Thus, negotiation training is a prerequisite for effective coaching, and ongoing coaching is essential for an organization to capitalize on past experience. Most training gains are lost unless individual managers select one or two new practices, make a public commitment to try out these practices, and have a peer or a coach hold them accountable for measuring their progress.
Coaching offers negotiators not only feedback and encouragement but also opportunities for ongoing experimentation. If you made a mistake last time around, you must decide in advance what you’ll do differently next time. Then you’ll need to review the next set of results to determine whether you improved and what you ought to do in the future. If these estimates and commitments aren’t documented, it’s easy to lose track of your learning plan. Each step requires a commitment of time and energy. Until it becomes a corporate norm, negotiation coaching is easily pushed aside when other pressing considerations arise.
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