Should Your Boss Be at the Negotiation Table?

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

Imagine that you are about to begin a negotiation whose subject matter is squarely within your area of responsibility at my company. However, the dollar amounts at stake are so large that you are tempted to kick it upstairs to your boss, or at least involve your boss directly in the negotiation. What are the pros and cons of doing so?

There are of course, some ties when the boss ought to be brought into a negotiation, but you should consider two important risks before doing so. First, “kicking it upstairs” clearly signals to the other side that there are limits to your ability or authority to get things done. Even worse, this move might suggest that you perceive a problem with the relationship across the table at your level and you need “Mom” or “Dad” in the room to get things back on track.

These signals can have negative repercussions down the road. For example, once your counterpart has dealt directly with your boss, he might start bringing your boss more frequently for future negotiations. This would reduce your credibility and blur previously clear-cut channels of communication. This puts your boss in a difficult position too: either she accepts the invitation to stay involved or risks insulting a potentially important customer or supplier. In sum, once you’ve let this genie out of the bottle, it’s virtually impossible to get it back in, so be aware of the risks!

A second, more subtle problem is that bringing in the boss signals vulnerability in the current negotiation. The instant the other side sees your boss in the room, he’ll say to himself: This deal must be so important to them that they had to bring in the big guns! Suddenly the perceived bargaining range has widened, and not in a way that favors you. The negotiation may be important, even vital, for your organization, but there is usually little to gain from confirming this fact in the other side’s mind from the outset.

Instead of involving your boss directly, use her strategically. For example, when the boss in charge of a particular product visits your region, it makes sense to have her visit your major customers with you. But the goal is to make personal connections at multiple levels between your organizations, not to try to negotiate the terms of a specific deal.

In general, the best approach is to negotiate at your level as much as possible. Keep your boss in the loop and seek her guidance on specific negotiation points. If you reach an impasse, consider threatening to invoke bosses on both sides, rather than just yours. For example: “It feels like we’re stuck. Do you think it would be worthwhile to kick this upstairs to our respective bosses to sort out?” This threat alone might get talks back on track at your level.

If all else fails, bring your boss in to help you reach the finish line, but play that card only after you have exhausted all other options.

 

Adapted from “When to ‘Kick It Upstairs,” by Guhan Subramanian (professor, Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, November 2010.