Are you wondering what small gift to get the manager in your life – one with whom you live or work? Or, perhaps for yourself! A little, but powerful, book is Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Written my Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and first published in 1981, it has been a national bestseller with numerous re-prints and an update in 1991. If I could pick only one book to put on my management library shelf, this is the one I would choose; it would be a great gift at any time of the year.

A manager’s day is filled with negotiation. Defined by Wikipedia, negotiation is discussion leading to agreement. For example, questions such as when to schedule the staff meeting, who gets the office with windows, or how to allocate the budget, can all happen in a morning’s work, after which you negotiate where to go for lunch. As pervasive as is negotiation, the process gets more complicated, of course, when the discussion is filled with conflict and emotion, or when the stakes are high. It is all too easy to get bogged down in the conflict and stop negotiating, when negotiation is actually the way out. Hence, the value of this book.

The stated mission of The Harvard Negotiation Project, out of which Getting to YES emerged, is “to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation by working on real world conflict intervention, theory building, education and training, and writing and disseminating new ideas”.  Its application spans personal, organizational and international interactions.

We have all experienced conflict in our organizations. Healthy and successful organizations integrate people and resources, with a diversity of skills, experience and backgrounds, into an effective system to achieve organizational goals. Organization growth, and the very diversity it requires often results in disagreement and conflict. When not dealt with effectively, conflict is prolonged, gets complicated, and results in negative outcomes.

The irony is that most organizations allow conflict to be prolonged! There are many ways to dismiss or muddle conflict.

Yielding:

Giving in completely to the other side’s wishes, or at least cooperating with little or no attention to your own interests.

Compromising:

Settling for an ‘agreement’ you are not entirely happy with, in which your losses are offset by some gains.

Avoiding:

Smoothing over or avoid conflict situations altogether.

Forcing:

Trying to win the conflict at the other’s expense.

In my own experience as a manager I remember exhibiting all these ineffective behaviours at various times: suppressing conflict between staff only to find it explodes later at some unexpected moment, getting angry when people resisted change without consideration of the value of the their perspective of what will be lost, and competing with others when there was much to be gained from co-operation are some examples. Apart from the organizational dysfunction that resulted in these cases, I felt disappointed in myself that I had not done enough to get the best outcome.

Reading this book had an immediate effect on increasing my negotiation skills within an optimistic perspective, and with confidence to work to resolve conflict in a timely manner. Over time I helped to make my organization become conflict-positive.

The very practical steps described in Getting to YES embody ‘principled negotiation’ which is based on four propositions. While these principles may seem intuitive, it is easy for managers to focus otherwise:

Separate the people from the problem.

It is easy to confuse the substantive issues of a problem with the person with whom you are negotiating. It could be, for example, that seeing the individual as difficult or devious will cloud your understanding of the problem itself, which is separate from the person. 

Focus on interests, not positions.

It is easy to get stuck in positions when discussing policy such as whether staff should be able to work flexible hours. The positions of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are each based on values, experience, and concerns about how the policy may be applied.  Taking steps to understand the interest of each perspective brings more information to everyone’s attention.

Invent options for mutual gain.

It is easy to end up in an either/or situation; that is, flexible hours or no flexible hours.  Looking for additional options for mutual gain, such as job sharing in this example, may reveal possibilities that neither party had thought of before.

Insist on using objective criteria.

It is easy to consider the only resolution to negotiation as accepting one option or another based on what one feels able to accept.  Using objective external standards such as employment law or human resource best practices, helps both parties identify criteria on which they agree a decision can be based.

In addition to guiding your way to resolve conflict, the Getting to YES approach to negotiation helps to surface pertinent information about the issue, often leading to better decisions. The book also has sections on situations where you feel the other side has more power or is not negotiating fairly.  Then, finally, it deals with how to manage the times when agreement cannot be reached. The ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement’, shortened to BATNA, is helpful to think about from the beginning of complex and important negotiations. Doing so will help to relieve the pressure of feeling you have to come to a deal.

So, relax during the holiday with a book that will provide supportive guidance in the New Year. It is one to have by your side for many years to come.

From books to movies: In case you have time to watch a movie over the holidays, the next blog post will talk about two movies with lessons for managers.

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