Pitfalls of the Powerful

By — on / Business Negotiations, Daily

Adapted from “Are You Too Powerful for Your Own Good?” by Ann E. Tenbrunsel (professor, Notre Dame University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Imagine that you’re a national account sales manager and are preparing to negotiate your annual raise. You have met all your sales objectives and feel that you are not only a valuable employee but also the top producer in the department. You feel quite confident that you will receive the highest possible salary increase. But during an informal discussion with some of your peers, you realize that they, while aware of your achievements, believe they have contributed more to the team than you think they have.

Who is right, you or your coworkers? In research investigating the impact of power in negotiations, professors David Messick of Northwestern University and Ann Tenbrunsel of Notre Dame University have found that high-power players tend to discount the power of less powerful players. Such self-confident perceptions can cause problems for powerful negotiators, who may offer fewer concessions and treat others with less respect and recognition than less powerful negotiators feel they rightfully deserve.

Most negotiators understand the importance of preparation and will dedicate significant time and energy to analyzing important negotiations in advance. Chances are, however, that powerful negotiators will undertake less informative and less accurate analyses than their weaker counterparts will. For instance, in the hypothetical raise negotiation, you may be so confident of your contributions that you fail to thoroughly investigate several other important factors: the extent to which your boss met her annual sales goals, the relative performance of your peers, or the company’s overall financial health. Clearly, all these variables would be relevant to your salary negotiation.

You may think you’re on top, but power is in the eye of the beholder. Accepting this reality often necessitates broadening your notion of what constitutes power. Resources are often the most obvious source of power, but maintaining good relationships, being viewed as an expert, and constructing mutually beneficial solutions also add to one’s power base. At the heart of these skills is the ability to influence the interests of others at the table, whether positively or negatively. Your counterparts may win at the influence game if they recognize that power is multifaceted-and you don’t.

Stories of less powerful Davids outsmarting formidable Goliaths show up in the news every day. To avoid becoming the next Goliath, you need to overcome the tendency to view an upcoming negotiation as a no-brainer. Instead, strive to identify and understand the weaker party’s vantage point by undertaking the same thorough preparation and analysis that you would if you were in his position.

This advice is equally important during the negotiation itself: Never assume that you’ve got it made.

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