May 2016 | 

Four Ways to Improve Negotiations: Power in Numbers

Power in Numbers: Four Ways to Improve Negotiations

We often think of them in terms of governments and unions: small groups of sometimes unlikely partners join together as a coalition to exert bargaining power over a more formidable adversary. Politicians, laborers, and even college professors make headlines when they use coalitions effectively.

But when it comes to corporate negotiations, this powerful tool is often neglected. “Coalitions can play an important role in many negotiations,” says Wharton professor Cade Massey, “but even seasoned negotiators rarely think to use them.” Massey, who teaches in Wharton’s week-long Executive Negotiation Workshop: Bargaining for Advantage®, explains that it’s not surprising since the topic is mostly overlooked in negotiation literature and research. “Coalitions don’t get talked about or written about enough, but they can strongly influence outcomes. In the program, we offer concrete prescriptions for using coalitions more productively, and participants have many opportunities to practice with a diverse group of peers. They’re relevant to so many negotiations that you need to be thinking about it all the time.”

Specifically, Massey explains four ways to create and use coalitions the next time you’re preparing for a negotiation:

  1. Think broadly about potential coalitional partners. “There is a tendency to get overly focused on the person across the table,” says Massey. “Many don’t consider who has influence over him or her. Those people are your potential coalition partners. Find a third party to influence him or her, informally, before negotiations. Think very creatively and broadly about who those people might be.”
  2. Don’t neglect the end-game. Typically, there are issues that are relevant to a negotiation beyond the explicit ones being considered. Massey notes that we often think too narrowly about what we are negotiating and miss opportunities for coalitions. “Consider the other party’s broad interests across your current focus and across time. What is the most expansive way to think about your negotiation history with this person? Try to find commonalities that go beyond the issues currently on the table.”
  3. Have a meeting before the meeting. Negotiations are always influenced, and even sometimes settled, before the formal negotiation begins. Create and use opportunities before you sit down to gauge the other party, share information, and take the temperature of the situation. It doesn’t have to be formal — you could have lunch or a beer with a potential coalition partner, or stop by their office. You are assessing possible coalition partners or bringing them in before the negotiation.
  4. Give to get. We are hardwired to treat others the way we are treated, so it can backfire if you react negatively toward those you’re negotiating with. “Keep coalitional partners close,” Massey stresses. “Offer concessions and go out on a limb for others to keep a coalition together. It’s not easy to do in the face of forces that would like to divvy up. But share generously, because people are apt to respond in kind.”

Ultimately, Massey says if you don’t do the groundwork, you won’t have a coalition — and you’ll be at a disadvantage. “You should ideally be sitting at the table with two or three coalitional partners in the room. If you’re not, be aware that other people are. If you think no one has talked about the issues behind the scenes and formed coalitions, you are already behind.”