Negotiate Your Way to Better Leadership

Overhead image of two men sitting at a table

Movies and the media often portray negotiation in unrealistic ways. With all due respect to Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire,” for example, few people trained to negotiate go around screaming, “Show me the money.”

Some individuals do possess a natural talent for deal making, which gives them the ability to negotiate relatively well. But training can still improve their skills, not to mention make them better at leadership, collaboration, and big-picture thinking.

As someone involved in executive education, I am always thinking about interesting ways to raise awareness of this fact using real-life examples. In a recent article published by Canadian HR Reporter, I pointed to a fascinating hijacking tale that took place in the Gulf of Aden in November 2008, when a cargo ship owned by the Danish Clipper Group was taken by Somali pirates seeking US$7 million in ransom.

As reported in an NPR feature entitled “Behind The Business Plan Of Pirates Inc.,” Clipper Group CEO Per Gullestrup agreed to negotiate the release of his ship using a professionally trained negotiator after discussing the issue with his insurance company. And he did this despite being highly experienced at deal making. This was a good decision because the hired negotiator limited the Clipper Group’s financial loss by doing what he was trained to do — look beyond the financial ask to find common ground. Indeed, the Clipper Group offered safe passage home to the pirates, who feared being hijacked by competitors, as part of a deal in which the ransom paid was much less than the ship’s insured value and the pirates’ initial demand.

I used this story in my Canadian HR Reporter article because it highlights the fact that negotiations are often done better by people trained to understand that non-monetary issues are frequently key to negotiating acceptable outcomes. The focus of that piece was on the many benefits that negotiation training offers to HR professionals, who, I noted, are involved “in a wide range of key functions that can make or break a company’s bottom line, such as procuring resources and building business cases for new HR initiatives; hiring, developing and retaining staff and executives; and managing critical organizational processes. All of this involves some sort of negotiation, and the skills required to do it as efficiently and effectively as possible while also preserving high-quality relationships are not typically developed on the job.” In this article, I propose that honing negotiation skills benefits everyone in a management position.

When we think about negotiations training, we tend to think about people in procurement or sales jobs, or conflict resolution professionals. A lot of training is indeed dedicated to these functions. Nevertheless, we all negotiate constantly in our day-to-day lives. We do it at home with our families. And we do it at work with our co-workers, clients, bosses and others on whom we rely to get work done. These negotiations are often about things other than money: be they deadlines, resources, processes or even the language of a mission statement. As a result, negotiation skills can be applied in a wide range of work-related activities, especially leadership roles. And honing strong negotiation skills with training helps leaders build positive reputations and relationships.

Keep in mind that being an effective negotiator is not about shouting demands and putting on a good poker face. It requires an understanding of negotiation techniques, developed interpersonal skills and a commitment to doing the hard work that developing a knowledge-driven negotiation strategy requires. Simply put, to reach agreements that can be implemented successfully, negotiators must be sufficiently prepared to negotiate. Indeed, long before anyone sits down at the negotiation table, they should have a clear sense of what they want to accomplish, their alternatives, and what they may be willing to give up to meet their objectives. They must also understand the other side’s position and objectives and anticipate ways in which these can be met.

Furthermore, most workplace negotiations are nothing like what you see in the movies. The end game is not an agreement that beats up the other side, or getting the best price for something. Winning isn’t even the objective. In the corporate world, negotiation is typically about creating value by aligning resources appropriately. The whole point is reaching lasting agreements that do not lead to future problems, especially when dealing with stakeholders with differing needs, wants, mandates and beliefs. In other words, the great power (and return on investment) of training in negotiation derives from being able to generate solutions that are superior to what we would have if we did not negotiate.

In today’s complex world of interconnected risks, opportunities and challenges, the best leaders (not to mention the best future leaders flowing through organizational pipelines) understand that collaboration is superior to centralized decision making. Negotiation training is all about making professionals better and more confident at their jobs by helping them develop the ability to lead a collaborative process that aims to achieve the best possible outcome for all concerned while also developing high-quality relationships — with direct reports, supervisors, other managers, suppliers, clients and external stakeholders. And that’s why developing negotiation skills should be on every manager’s to-do list.


About the Author

Fernando Olivera is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Ivey Business School at Western University. He can be reached at  

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