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Why Good Leaders Don't Always Negotiate

As companies look to level their organizational structures, negotiating will be key--but it's not always recommended.

Zappos may be the latest company to do away with its more traditional management hierarchy--adopting instead a flat, manager-less structure--but it surely won't be the last.

With this erosion of strict authority structures in organizations, the question then becomes: If leaders and managers are no longer in the comfortable position of dictating policy, products or direction, how can they make effective change?

They have to win people over, that's how. They have to constantly persuade others to go along with their ideas. In short, leaders have to negotiate with practically everyone.

While negotiation may be the best way to work out differences, there may be times when you’re better off simply making a decision and acting on it. If you’re in a leadership position, this may mean doing things your way regardless of the concerns or interests of the other party or parties.

To know which tact to take, ask yourself whether a given situation merits negotiation. This question will depend largely on the following criteria: your relationship with the other party, the balance of power between the parties involved and the importance of the issue at hand.

Also, ask yourself how much you stand to gain if negotiations go your way, and how much you could lose if they don’t. You may find yourself in a situation where the issue is important to you, and where exiting the relationship and looking for alternatives is too costly. In that case, negotiating is likely your best bet.

Remember that there are dangers in negotiating when you don't have to. First and most obvious, negotiation takes time. If you have the time to engage in a protracted back-and-forth, that’s one thing. Sometimes circumstances demand that you make a decision and get on with it.

Second, when you negotiate with another party, you indicate that they have something you want or need. The act of negotiating empowers the other party. This can be a good thing (again, if you want to maintain a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship).

It can also create organizational monsters. Don't make the mistake of negotiating to be more likeable, or to appear participatory and inclusive.

Use this list as a guide to help you determine when to enter into a negotiation:

Negotiation may not be appropriate when…

1. You don't share common ground. Sometimes two parties have such divergent interests, there is nothing much to talk about.

2. You don’t have the time. Negotiating takes time. Sometimes you have to calculate if you're better off taking action without negotiation. The delay that formal negotiations cause may erode a decision's value.

3. Power is asymmetric. If a party is so overwhelming powerful, has all the bargaining chips and controls all the resources then you may have to delay the negotiation until you’ve accumulated some chips of your own.

Negotiation is usually a good choice when…

1. The issue warrants the effort. Not all issues are important enough to negotiate. Some are relatively inconsequential and obviously you can’t negotiate everything. Differentiate between critical issues and those that are not worth the effort. The problem of course is that what in the short term may appear to be a non-critical issue may in the long term have hidden consequences.

2. It is clear that you cannot have it your way. In other words, you need the cooperation of another party.

3. You could have it your way, but that might have long-term consequences. Sometimes, in the short term, you don't need the cooperation of another party--but in the long term, there are benefits to having them in your corner.

4. You are in or aspire to have a long-term relationship with the opposing party. When the relationship is long term, negotiation is critical to sustaining trust and commitment on both sides.

5. There is a chance you may be wrong. Even if you have the capacity to go it alone, negotiation allows you test the appropriateness and quality of your ideas and position.

Negotiation should never be used as a token, politically correct exercise. It should only be engaged in when there’s hope of real conflict resolution.

Last updated: Jan 3, 2014

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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