Who’s Watching? How Onlookers Affect Team Talks: Negotiating in Front of Superiors in Business Negotiations

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

How well will you negotiate in front of your boss? Conventional wisdom suggests that the presence of superiors motivates us to put our best foot forward and seize opportunities to make a good impression. This expectation is probably overly optimistic.

Inhibition and FearIn a recent review of the effects of power in organizations, professors Dacher Keltner and Cameron Anderson of the University of California at Berkeley and Deborah Grunenfeld of Stanford University concluded that in the presence of a more powerful person, individuals are more likely to be inhibited in their behavior and more sensitive to the possibility of threats and punishment.

In the long run, negotiating against your best interests or with inhibition is likely to lead to disappointment for both you and your superiors. If you “win” a negotiation for a task you don’t want, your low motivation will probably be reflected in the final outcome. In addition, the fear of threats and punishment could make talks conducted in front of your boss less task-oriented and more personal and tense.

Defensiveness, Ingratiation, and AvoidanceWe have found in our research that when faced with the task of resolving a conflict with a team member or when asked to negotiate in front of superiors, many people freeze up and avoid the task entirely – a choice that probably won’t impress the boss. Others use inappropriate strategies such as becoming defensive or ingratiating, that are debilitating not only to the negotiation but also to team relationships and productivity.

In addition, we’ve found that team members who are debating responsibility for certain aspects of a task, such as resource allocation, in front of their boss are less likely to discuss issues fully than those who negotiate privately. The result? The boss views the coworkers’ silence as agreement and accommodation. Individuals become saddled with inappropriate responsibilities. The coworkers’ relationship suffers, and the boss is left with unmotivated employees and the false impression that the problem has been solved.

Neutralize Your Boss’s PresenceIt’s important to remember that inhibition and tensions that arise in the situations we’ve described have an external cause: your boss’s presence. Your relationship with your coworker is more likely to be damaged when a superior is present than if you were able to negotiate in private; your relationship with your boss may suffer as well.

Here are two ways to cope:

(1) Move the discussion to a private setting. Rather than negotiating in front of the entire team about who should lead, ask your boss whether you and your teammate can discuss the issue after the meeting and present your agreement to her later that day. You should be able to achieve your desired outcome in a setting less fraught with inhibitions and stress.

(2) Stay on task. If you have no choice but to negotiate in front of your boss, our research suggests that you should strive to remain focused on task related issues. Although it’s true that your boss will be evaluating your immediate performance in the negotiation, what matters in the long run is your performance (and the team’s) on the tasks that you negotiate. Neglecting to sort out assignments and disagreements will only hinder your ultimate goal.

Part 3, Who’s Watching? How Onlookers Affect Team Talks: Negotiating in Front of Allies and Enemies