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Leaders negotiate, not dictate!

Many people think that negotiation is a leadership skill that is useful only when dealing with people outside the organisation. By contrast, when it comes to the inside, authority has the last say. I know of a CEO who once confronted the CFO and demanded under what authority he (the CFO) could countermand him, even when financial procedure dictated the fiduciary actions taken by the CFO. It seems that many people have the notion, CEOs included, that inside an organisation, the one who sits atop the pecking order is the one whose word is law. In fact, they think that leading people requires vision, wisdom and a commanding manner, but not negotiation. Real leaders don't negotiate with their people, they tell them!

Unfortunately, that cannot be further from the truth. Why? Well, let's break it down a little... leadership is loosely defined as the ability to guide a group of people to act willingly in accordance with a vision or a goal. The fact of the matter is, negotiation has the exact intent - to get the counterpart party to willingly act in accordance with the agreement, the goal. The two have the same intent, and are invariable intertwined. Leadership almost always involves negotiation, and a good leader will invariably be a good negotiator, inside and outside the organisation. In fact, experienced leaders know that authority has its limits. After all, some people that you lead may be smarter than you, have more experience than you, and may have greater influence than you. So, telling these people what to do will undermine your ability to lead them. If you are a manager who is facing resistance from your talented staff, this is an indication that you lack the ability to lead them, and that, in turn, shows your lack of negotiation skills. A focus on the four key aspects of negotiation - interests, relationships, voice and vision - will improve your leadership skills.

Interest focus

In negotiation, we are taught to move away from position onto interests. Negotiating on position may create an intractable situation, and it is rarely able for two sides to come to an agreement. And that may be the case in the 1978 Camp David Summit between Israel and Egypt. In 1967, following the mobilisation of Egyptian forces along Israeli borders, Israel invaded Egypt, and pushed Egyptian forces out of the Sinai, and occupied the territory there for the next 11 years. At Camp David, President Carter tried to broker a peace deal between Egypt and Israel, but the two would not budge. Sadat demanded the complete return of the Sinai to Egypt, but Begin would not return one inch because he needed the buffer between Egypt and Israel. The discussion then shifted from position to interests. It was determined that Israel was interested in security, and Egypt wanted sovereignty. If both sides could get what they wanted, there would be agreement: Egyptian flags could fly in the Sinai, but there would be no tanks in sight. And that was exactly what they agreed upon. This was the historic accord at Camp David.

When people's interests are met, there is a natural tendency to get agreement. If a "leader" believes that his charisma, his vaunted office or his vision is enough to get people to fall in line and move with the flow, he has another thing coming to him. The truth of the matter is, people don't follow people who don't have their interests at heart. Whether acting individually or in a group, people will give first priority to their own interests. Just as we saw how interests played in the negotiation between Sadat and Begin, we also see that leaders who bear their followers' interests in mind, and effectively work to satisfy those interests, will get them to achieve organisational goals. Gone are the days where we can say, "Well, you are being paid for doing you job, now do it!" If that is the "leader's" attitude, then expect your talent to move on to the next higher bidder.

So what does this mean to leaders? Well, they need to know their people as individuals in order to understand their interests. Some people are interested in learning and developing themselves rather than money; others are interested to make their children's tuition, and will gladly work the graveyard to earn just that little bit more. If you don't know what interests drive your followers, you will not be able to get them to drive yours.

Relationship building

Another essential part of negotiation is the building of relationship. Just as no one will tell you their interests if they don't trust you, no one is going to fall behind your thoughts and ideas if they only see you as the means to achieving an end. In negotiation, the step before bargaining is information sharing. And the reason why this is so is as much a means for each party to understand the other, as it is to build that relationship so crucial to get agreement. It is for this reason that we teach our course participants to stop the negotiation process the moment they start developing negative thoughts about their counterpart, and to shift the discussion away from the subject at hand, and to learn something personal about the other party. It is only when we realise that our counterpart has 4 daughters, two of whom have Down Syndrome, that we realise that he is playing hardball simply because he cannot afford to lose a couple of dollars here and there, and we then can relent our charging attitude and see how we can reach win-win. In similar fashion, a leader will have to make that connection, and build trust with his followers, because any strategic positioning entails risk, and he will need to rely on the trust bank with his followers to support the risky notion.

Four building blocks can be utilised to build relationships with people that you lead:

(1) two-way communication, which allows unimpeded flow of information both ways;

(2) a strong commitment from the leader to address the interests of his followers

(3) reliability, which the leader demonstrates by behaving predictably, and honouring promises and commitments;

(4) respect for the contributions that ALL followers make to the organisation

Finding the right leadership voice

According to UCLA acoustic researcher Rosario Signorello, who conducted studies on top political leaders of France, Italy and Portugal and the way they spoke, concluded the following, "charismatic leaders of any type in any culture tend to stretch their voice to the lower and higher limits during a public speech, which is the most important and risky context of communication for leadership." And it gets more complicated. These leaders adopted an entirely different tone when speaking to other high-ranking politicos or when the subject strayed from political topics. “They stretch their voice less when they speak to other leaders, keeping the vocal pitch very low. They stretch the voice limits even less when they speak about nonpolitical topics,” Dr. Signorello said. In similar fashion, an effective negotiator does not go into a discussion with monotonous enthusiasm (here is an oxymoron, if ever there was one!) , because it signals so many things wrong with the process. Instead, he will stretch his vocal pitch when discussing in a group, but will lower their pitch when speaking with the main counterpart one-on-one. Timbre, pitch, pace are all important to both a leader and a negotiator.

Yet, this is not everything about voice. What channel the leader uses to convey the message is equally important. An effective leader will choose the right medium to get his point across, and achieve the outcome he needs. For example, when a leader wants to initiate a change programme, which should he use: a memo, or a townhall meeting? This is clear, isn't it? It is the townhall, but how many CEOs have gone the lazy route to either delegate the important leadership voice to a subordinate who uses the wrong channel? Too many! They believe that the message is important but not the voice; yet it is the voice that gets the connection, and the channel by which the voice takes to communicate will spark that enthusiasm or kill the passion. When creating the connection, just as in negotiations, leadership must employ the correct voice to ensure that the outcomes are met.


So which is better, a vision that the leader has crafted with his key people in an offsite, or one what is negotiated with his followers? Conventional leadership view is that an organisation can only do well when there is a strong leader who creates everything for the company, and the followers just take it in like a sponge, and go out there and conquer the world. If the leader cannot paint the vision for tomorrow, the company would be dead in the water. While that has worked with some charismatic leaders, most are not so compelling, and a large proportion of them don't even know it! So that is not the most effective means of visioning. Members up and down the organisation have their own thoughts about what the company is and isn't, and where the company goes or not. Hence, the process of articulating a vision should not simply be one which says, "Guys, here is where we want to be in the next 5 years, and you jolly well have to get your act together and support it, because, damn it!, we spent 3 days in an expensive beachfront resort to come up with this!" Instead, the process is one of negotiation, in particular, multilateral negotiation which relies on coalition building. Like a skilled politician, the leader would have to go to small parts of the organisation, and build support and create coalitions. It is a collective effort of shaping the vision with the input of all the followers, so that everyone is aligned to it, and there is substantial support for it. Vision is best negotiated for to make it stick; coming down from on high simply pushes people away, especially when the people know that the company cannot get there!

Leaders must be negotiators

So, far from the traditional understanding of leadership which sees it dictating actions from on high, true leadership is one which works the ground, which builds on consensus through negotiation. Knowing that our people these days are smarter, more exposed, and even more experienced that leaders of yesterday (who are STILL sitting at the helm), leaders need to acknowledge that they need their people more than their people need them. This requires them to appeal to interests, relationships, voice and vision to align them all.

Negotiation, therefore, is a key leadership skill moving forward in the latter half of the 2010s.

Learn more...

Download our eBook, "Lessons from Leaders: Negotiation Stories to Learn From" to learn from four prominent leaders - Nelson Mandela, Prof Tommy Koh, Ina Drew and Mark Zuckerberg - and how negotiation played an integral part of their lives; and why you and your organisation, must also develop this key leadership skill for the upcoming new decade.

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