It pays to study the key skill of negotiation

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The Independent Online

"All through life one learns to be a better negotiator," said Antoine Pecquet, a French diplomat who wrote Discourse On The Art Of Negotiation. That was in 1737, and nearly 300 years later Christophe Lattuada agrees.

In 1997 Lattuada did an MBA at ESSEC Business School in Paris that included a course on negotiation. "If I had the opportunity, I'd do another negotiating course," he says. "As a junior manager you're not in a position to lead negotiations, but it's important to get the tools right at the beginning so you can understand the dynamics of the situation. From then on you're learning all the time."

Lattuada, as deputy head of strategy at an international bank, is involved in internal as well as external negotiations. "When working with other departments where there's no hierarchical link, you need to sort out who has responsibility for a project or the resources for each department – in the end, it's all trade-offs."

Negotiation is increasingly relevant in today's business landscape, argues Stefanos Mouzas, professor of marketing and strategy, and director of research at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS).

"Managers now realise that their authority does not necessarily ensure commitment from others," says Mouzas. "Diverse backgrounds, globalisation, cross-cultural encounters and changes in corporate circumstances mean that they must lead through negotiation."

Professor Aurélien Colson of ESSEC Business School has a definition of negotiation. "It's a very diverse set of processes in which independent parties go from a point where they share a problem or issue to try to reach another point where they are going to share a mutually agreeable solution."

It sounds easy and many managers think they're doing it right according to Francis Chittenden, ACCA professor of small business finance at Manchester Business School. "At the beginning of our MBA programme 80 per cent of students claim that they've been involved in negotiation, and I have to make them realise that they don't know as much as they think."

The same attitude can arise at the other end of the career ladder. Professor Colson, who heads up the IRENE project at ESSEC providing research and training in negotiation, runs programmes for the French government and the European Commission. He trains diplomatic negotiators at entry level as well as senior civil servants with over 20 years' experience. "Often these senior diplomats have got into a negotiation routine that is no longer effective and they need to step back and re-assess the procedure."

Many of the stages of negotiation are similar in politics and business. Preparation and forethought are key, according to Professor Chittenden. "Be clear about your objectives, make sure the team is well briefed and know their roles, and ensure that everyone is working towards the same objectives."

Before starting, try to find out the zone of possible agreement and the best alternative. Think through the style of the negotiation – if a long-term relationship is involved then you must create value for everyone. If it's a one-off then you need to make the sale by being persuasive.

"An argument is always better than a fight," claims Saïd-Abass Ahamed, professor of negotiation at Rouen Business School, whose other role is as a peace negotiator in African countries including Rwanda. There he has to build confidence among former enemies and make them feel interdependent. "I may work with them for several years until both sides, who may have been involved in terrible atrocities, can see the other's point of view."

Measuring the success of negotiation can be difficult, warns Professor Colson: "Often the participants forget about stakeholders who aren't at the table – for example, corporate negotiations between employers and trade unions might exclude staff who aren't unionised and who will object at not being consulted.

"You must justify your deal to your boss and your colleagues, and show the outside world that it was good. Coming to an agreement is only part of the process – it has to be implemented efficiently, eliminating the vague areas that provide lots of work for lawyers."

At the University of Exeter Business School, negotiation skills are embedded in the curriculum rather than a separate elective. Some students negotiate their own assessment criteria, explains Stephen Hickman, programme director for the MSc in International Management. "It forces them to make a decision on a consensual basis rather than following their own agenda. Consultancy projects are also negotiated with clients and faculty, and afterwards students critically analyse their negotiations and how they could have done it differently."

MBA students experience their first negotiating challenge in their job search. Apart from carrying out thorough research and preparation, Professor Colson advises candidates to also have a Plan B.

"Being desperate for the job is not a good position," he says. "If possible, have another job offer so you can negotiate salary and conditions."

And when discussing the salary and conditions, remember the advice of negotiation trainer Chester L. Karrass: "You don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate."

'When negotiating, you need to have something to offer'

Michael Vachon negotiated sales with IT suppliers when he worked as project manager for an accountancy firm but on the MBA programme's negotiation module at Manchester Business School he's realised that there's still a lot to learn.

"The most useful lesson is to know when to walk away, especially if you're in danger of losing a relationship or trust by pushing too hard."

Vachon put his lessons to good effect recently when hiring a fancy-dress costume for a college party. The shopkeeper quoted a 'special price' of £40. "I offered £5, he said it was ridiculous but could see I was about to go elsewhere. We agreed on £25, though I was expecting to pay £30."

The negotiating session has another practical application – in job-hunting. Vachon plans to join a venture capitalist firm, where his negotiating skills would be in demand. "You should always have something to offer. When approaching companies for an internship, I'll demonstrate that although my experience isn't in the VC sector, I have extensive experience in managing people, which is appropriate for any project."

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