43. Agile Leadership and Nimble Negotiation for Social Equity

At least for a while, this will be the final posted episode of Agility at Work. More about that in a moment. No matter what unfolds, quite conveniently our conversation today with Rob Garris bridges Kim’s world of agile leadership and Mike’s jazz of negotiation domain.

Rob is the Managing Director of Leadership Development at Trinity Church Wall Street. While New York was still an English colony, the church was granted more than 200 acres of land in lower Manhattan. As you can imagine, Trinity has enormous resources—seven billion dollars, in fact.

Some of that has been used to support the church itself. But much of the money has gone to supporting good works in its community and, more broadly, through collaborations with other institutions and agencies. Its current grantmaking is focused on two major areas: racial justice and homelessness.

Rob’s responsibility at Trinity is to promote “leadership development for people of faith, both clergy and ordained, and to help train clergy who both are good leaders within the church as an institution, but also are leaders in their communities and fit into this broader concept of a church as a center of service and a resource for its community and its congregation.”

Worthy intentions are essential, of course, but bringing them fully to life requires astute planning, collaboration, persuasion and agility, most certainly in these contentious times. Shared values and faith do not guarantee consensus, however. Members of a community can disagree strongly about priorities and about the best means for achieving them.

As you will hear, much of what Rob has learned himself applies to leadership and negotiation in very different contexts—business, education, and not-for-profit institutions. His feet are firmly on the ground, but his aspirations (and accomplishments) are lofty. We hope you are uplifted by the example he sets.

Now, shifting gears, back to our podcast, Agility at Work. Over the last several years we have greatly enjoyed talking with and learning from scholars and practitioners who have shared with us (and you!) their experience and insights about leadership and negotiation with agility, both strategically and moment-to-moment.

Both of us are busy with other ventures and responsibilities. We need to catch our breath. There is much more for us to explore, of course, on this topic. Who knows, we may revive this project at some point, but likely, not anytime soon. For now, we express our thanks to you, our listeners, for your kind words and for letting other people know about Agility at Work.

Be well!

-Kim and Mike

42. Conflict Resilience in Contentious Times

The guest in this episode of Agility at Work is our friend and colleague Bob Bordone. Bob taught negotiation and conflict resolution for many years at Harvard Law School. He also founded a clinic here to give students firsthand experience in settling disputes. That program is still going strong.

Bob has now moved into multi-faceted private practice, serving as a mediator, facilitator, and negotiation adviser. And he somehow still manages to continue his teaching, as well.

The heart of our conversation this day is what Bob calls “conflict resilience.” It’s the ability to sit with, and be present around, those with whom we have fundamentally different views. As he explains, “It’s the capacity to listen with a generosity and openness, and at the same time, share one’s own views with authenticity and grace.” That’s an admirable skill, one that most of us could be better at, especially in these troubling days.

Skill, though, may not be the right word. As Bob describes it, conflict resilience calls on many aspects of our nature. Our empathy for others, along with self-awareness. Clarity about our own values coupled with curiosity about how others see the world. Confidence blended with humility. And perhaps supporting all that, a grounded optimism that engaging with others tends to be better than arming up for battle (or running for the hills).

Bob, a grounded optimist himself, believes we can deepen our ability to bring the temperature down dealing with people with whom we strongly disagree—neighbors, colleagues, and perhaps most challenging, family members whose views diametrically differ from our own.

As you’ll hear, Bob also sees a welcome evolution in the way in which negotiation specialists understand the process. In recent years there’s been a shift from the substantive dimension of negotiation (trading this for that) to the relational, interpersonal dimension.

That certainly is true of Bob’s work, as you can see on his website: http://www.bobbordone.com/. A great place to start is one of his featured videos, “Can We Talk? Rules for Engagement for Civil Discourse”: http://www.bobbordone.com/featured-videos.

41. The Power of a Surprise Ask

Our guest this episode, in an encore appearance, is our friend and HBS colleague Christine Exley. Back in Episode 10 we discussed her on-going research on gender inequality and how to address it. This time we learned about her work on charitable giving—why we sometimes say yes and other times no.

Most of us are deluged by appeals—phone calls, email blasts, and the old-fashioned knocks on the door. With so many organizations vying for our attention, it’s become a competitive environment. As the old saying goes, “You don’t get, if you don’t ask.” But the more asks we hear, the less attention we can give them. Envelopes pile up on our desks. Emails pack our inboxes. Many of them are from worthy causes, but eventually, with a sigh perhaps, we pitch them all.

In a study with colleagues, Christine found that not asking—that is, not asking at the outset—is more likely to prompt a contribution.

The team set up a contest in which subjects would vote for a charity where the winner would get a large cash prize. Half the subjects were told in advance that they would then be asked to donate to their chosen organization. The other half weren’t given that heads-up. For them the request to personally contribute came as a surprise. As you might guess, that second group was significantly more generous. But why?

The research team concluded that people in the first group, who were forewarned, had time to come up with an excuse for declining the request. By contrast, the people for whom the request came out of the blue, weren’t prepared to dodge it.

The “surprise ask” technique may apply in other situations, as well. When you approach a friend or colleague for a personal favor, you might be better off first explaining your situation and then, after you’ve gotten their attention and warmed things up, making your ask. This can apply in negotiation, as well.

P.S. Beyond being a much-admired teacher and scholar, Christine has also been a social entrepreneur on the side. She co-founded Waggero, an organization for finding homes for abandoned dogs. The challenge was how to compete with (and elbow out) unethical “puppy mills” that badly mistreat the animals they breed. As you’ll hear, Christine came up with a clever solution.

40. Collaborative Leadership

Our guest for this episode, Mike Beer, is back with us for an encore. He spoke with us a year ago about his latest book, Fit to Compete: Why Honest Conversations about Your Company’s Capabilities are the Key to a Winning Strategy.

Mike joins us now to discuss the distinction between top-down leadership and leadership that draws on the experience and insights of people throughout an organization. That topic dovetails nicely with Kim’s work, notably the Adaptive Leadership course she teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Collaborative leadership may sound like a new idea, but Mike explains that its roots go back at least to the 1950s with the publication of Douglass McGregor’s classic, The Human Side of Enterprise. McGregor contrasted two leadership styles: Type X (autocratic) and Type Y (participatory), reflecting two fundamentally different views of human nature.

The Type X leaders—and they are still with us—believe that people are basically lazy, self-interested, and not interested in the larger good. So they have to be straightened out and tightly controlled. Type Y leaders have a more optimistic viewpoint. They believe that people want to be productive, work with others, and make a difference. It’s the leader’s job to promote and actively support involvement.

Mike explains that it’s one thing to aspire to that kind of leadership, but quite another to do it well. It requires being open to new ideas and a willingness to hear criticism. Those traits don’t come easily to many of us, especially when the stakes are high. Listen to his advice here, and for more on Mike Beer’s work, check out his professional website: https://www.beermichael.com/.

39. Getting to Yes Turns 40

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury, with Bruce Patton coming on board for subsequent editions.

It remains by far the best seller in the field and has been translated into dozens of languages. William, our guest in this episode, describes the book’s genesis. And together we discuss its enduring impact on how we understand and engage in negotiation.

The book’s key contribution was advancing a macro theory, one that applies to both deal making and dispute resolution, from buying a car to seeking peace in war-torn regions. The model emphasized three key steps.

1. Separate the people from the problem. This precept wasn’t meant to suggest that negotiation should be depersonalized. Far from it. The text puts building relationships and dealing with emotional issues as a top priority. Focus on that from the outset, the authors advised. Disentangle interpersonal aspects from substantive issues (e.g., dollars and cents, rights and liabilities).

2. Focus on interests, not positions. Lobbing demands back and forth can turn negotiation into a contest where making a concession feels like an act of weakness. But if no one budges, deadlock can result. And even if somebody finally blinks, their strained relationship may hamper implementation.

3. Invent options for mutual gain. Fisher and Ury’s most important contribution was highlighting how negotiation can be a problem-solving process in which parties make creative trades given their different needs and priorities. Earlier books like Robert Ringer’s 1974 Winning Through Intimidation and Herb Cohen’s 1980 You Can Negotiate Anything extolled a take-no-prisoners approach. For many readers, Getting to Yes’s emphasis on “mutual gains” was an attractive, refreshing alternative.

Notwithstanding the book’s virtues (especially, its fresh outlook and accessibility) its success signals there must have been something in the early in the 1980s that drew people to negotiation.

Negotiation centers popped up at universities. The Program on Negotiation drew on faculty from Tufts, MIT, Harvard, and other Greater Boston schools. Similar programs developed at Northwestern, Stanford, and Pepperdine, just to name a few institutions. At the beginning of the 1980s, professional schools of law, business, and government rarely offered negotiation courses. Somehow, ten years later, most of them did. Companies large and small began to provide negotiation training for their employees. And many books on negotiation followed, as well. Some in the spirit of Getting to Yes, others decidedly different.

Would all this have happened if that book never had been written? Absolutely. I’m sure of that. But my guess is that the book shaped and accelerated many of these ventures by linking theory and practice, and legitimizing general strategies that apply in a wide variety of contexts.

Talk about shelf life. Forty years. Four decades. And the book is still having impact. A remarkable legacy!

38. Rebel Talent

In these turbulent times, business as usual is a recipe for failure. In our work—and in our lives more broadly—we need to challenge the status quo and find new ways to overcome obstacles and capitalize on unexpected opportunities.

Our guest in this episode is our Harvard Business School colleague, Francesca Gino. She’s the author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. As you’ll hear, Fran is something of a rebel herself—and we say that with great respect and admiration. That nature is clear in her research and it’s the cornerstone of her teaching, as well. But when Fran speaks of rebels, she’s not talking about troublemakers, people who are arrogant or hostile.

Rather, Fran is fascinated by inventive thinkers who are deeply curious about how things work, while harboring the thought that they could make them work better. They’re the ones who can look at an apparent problem, see it from a new perspective, and transform it into a success.

She tells a great story about how the owner of the number-one-rated restaurant in the world witnessed one of his staff drop a dessert and make an utter mess on the kitchen floor. Rather than berate the poor guy, though, the owner saw how the disaster could be turned into one of the most popular items on his menu. The lesson? Organizations need to develop and support a culture that nurtures creative rebelliousness.

Fran says that leaders can spot them in an interview. Someone who answers the “what’s one of your weaknesses” question with “I’m too much of a perfectionist” probably isn’t the real deal. Instead, she says “if people are genuinely talking about something that they are not perfect on, that is a challenge for them, that’s a great sign for authenticity.”

Take a listen and discover how you can nurture your own, authentic rebellious spirit!

37. Getting a Bad Conversation Back on Track

Imagine you’re emailing back and forth with someone trying to resolve a problem. What if you had an app that would track your words and coach you on how to engage more effectively? Or, for that matter, say you’re conversing on Zoom or in-person. Would you use an ear bud that would give you real-time advice on how to tweak what you’re saying and how you’re saying it?

Kind of creepy, right? On the other hand, if the issue is important and your relationship is rocky, that kind of support might spell the difference between success and failure.

Our guest in this episode is psychologist Mike Yeomans, who teaches negotiation at Imperial College Business School in London. Mike’s research focuses on “conversational receptiveness,” as he calls it. It’s about how we do (or don’t) connect with others verbally.

It’s obviously a timely topic. As he says, “We’re having trouble with some of the conversations in our lives these days with all kinds of relationships. Not only in our personal lives, but also in our civic lives, too. It’s tough to talk to people we disagree with.”

Mike and his colleagues have toyed with the kind of coaching apps noted above. Their underlying research is based on analysis of real-world transcripts of difficult conversations. (Including, for example, disputes between editors of Wikipedia articles.) For a look at his ongoing work, check out www.mikeyeomans.info.

36. The Conscience Code

Richard Shell, who teaches negotiation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, is our guest in this episode. His new book, just published this summer, is The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values, Advance Your Career. It addresses challenging moral issues that arise in negotiation and in leadership, as well.

What do we owe others (and why) in regard to fairness, honesty, and the possible use of pressure tactics?

We dug deep into those questions. For example, the three of us discussed what we should do if we’re looking to buy a lovely vacation cabin, and its elderly owner has significantly underpriced the property. Should we snap it up, bargain for an even better price, or inform the owner that the price is too low?

In the leadership context we spoke about the delicate dance of simultaneously exerting authority and power, while being respectful and empathetic with people we lead.

In both settings, Richard emphasized the importance of anticipating tough choices, rather than grappling with them on the fly. He also offered a core principle for making hard decisions. Before acting, always ask yourself, “What would a person of conscience do?”

PS: As it happens, Mike recently posted two related articles on related issues on Jazz of Negotiation: “Fair Enough?” and ”Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.” If you’re curious, take a look and see how your ethical code compares with how Jazz readers responded.

35. The Four P’s of Adaptive Leadership

The top-down, command-and-control model of leadership has fallen out of fashion in today’s complex and fast-paced world. Our guest in this episode, Rob Wilkinson, provides an agile alternative that he and Kim Leary (co-host here) presented in their recent Harvard Kennedy School working paper, Leading with Intentionality: The 4P Framework for Strategic Leadership.

The heart of it, they wrote, is that “leadership . . . is not necessarily about charisma or a powerful personality unleashed. It involves a great deal of reflection, challenging the self, and respect for others.” That’s true for leadership in big organizations and in small teams, as well.

In our conversation, Rob and Kim explain their four P’s: Perception, Process, People, and Projection. Each of those elements has both an internal and external component. Internal is looking inward, the self-examination we need to do on our own. External is how we understand and engage with others.

On the internal level Perception is about how we comprehend problems and apparent opportunities. We need to be humble about our own assumptions and curious (not dismissive) about others.

The second P is Process: the rules, both stated and implicit, about who participates and who is heard. Even seemingly minor decisions, like scheduling a late afternoon meeting, have consequences. That time may be fine for most people, but tough for some others who have childcare responsibilities. Whether you stick with your original time or shift, there will be winners and losers.

Then there is P for People. Here Rob and Kim discuss the importance of monitoring both your own feelings and the emotions of the people with whom you work. Someone who feels disrespected, not listened to, can stifle collaboration and hamper implementation.

The fourth P is Projection, the way you convey a vision for the future. It’s not just about the words you speak from the head of the table or what gets written in a policy document or contract. It’s how you conduct yourself and model the kind of open engagement that you want others to practice.

As you’ll sense, that’s something that Rob and Kim are keenly aware of when teaching their adaptive leadership courses. Yes, they are in positions of authority in front of the classroom. They design the curriculum and do the grading. But they don’t lecture, nor do they grill their students. Instead, with a light hand, they guide discussion, so that everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher.

You’ll definitely get a feel for that, listening to their lively exchange here!

34. Negotiating the Impossible

That’s the name of a book by our HBS colleague Deepak Malhotra, the guest in this episode. The book’s subtitle is How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (without Money or Muscle). The cover shows a bomb shaped like a cannonball. Its short fuse is lit and sparking.

Deepak is drawn to dangerous problems that others believe are intractable. That interest is grounded in his values and energized by great curiosity, coupled with wit and humor. His dedication to peacemaking is reflected in his research, teaching, and his pro bono work in trouble spots around the globe.

Deepak strongly believes that understanding the dynamics of international conflict and civil strife provides important lessons in everyday life. When he teaches in the Families in Business course in the HBS Executive Program, his references to war and peace draw knowing chuckles from participants. As he tells us, “Those elements of identity, respect, non-financial concerns, the long shadow of the past, uncertainty, and ego issues exist in business contexts.”

In addition, we also talked with Deepak about his own remarkable career. He attributes much of his success to a willingness to quit what he’s doing, whether that’s walking away from what others would regard as a great job or shutting down a research project that no longer intrigues him. When he was fresh out of college, he quit a job with a prestigious consulting firm, after only a couple of months. He didn’t like having to put on a “game face” and not be his true self. Several years ago a graduating class chose him to speak as part of commencement. His message was: “Quit often and quit early.”

That willingness to drop something has opened him up to opportunities he couldn’t have anticipated or planned for. Deepak’s comfortable announcing a bold new course before he’s done any work developing the content. It forces him to get going. When it launches, “some classes go decently near plan and others go nowhere near plan.” For him, teaching is a process of experimentation and ongoing learning on his part.

Deepak has a stellar resume. He’s done lab studies, published extensively in academic journals, and has several books under his belt. But even in his writing, he does the unexpected. Earlier this year, he published a sci-fi novel called The Peacemaker’s Code. The hero isn’t a UN diplomat. Rather it’s a young historian who is delegated to enter a spacecraft that has landed on earth. And the alien’s intentions are not known.
Listen now to learn more!

33. The Moral Leader

Our guest in this episode is Joe Badaracco from the Harvard Business School. Decades ago, he designed a literature-based course for MBA students to enable them to explore deeply the moral issues that they may well encounter in their professional lives.

One of us (Mike) taught a section of this course at HBS for several years. The other (Kim) is considering launching a course like this at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Joe explains why exploring moral questions though plays, short stories, and novels is more effective than using standard business school cases. Cases typically focus on management problems—how to secure financing, for example, or whether to launch a new initiative. By contrast, much of literature is about people wrestling over who they want to be, their values, and how to manage conflicting responsibilities.

Joe’s course is also unusual in the way he teaches. He never writes on the blackboard. Joe doesn’t show PowerPoint slides. He doesn’t offer take-aways at the close. Instead, throughout the whole class he simply sits on a table in the front of the room, guiding the students’ discussion with a light hand.

In this episode we discuss the moral issues raised by some of the books he assigns. Here are three titles you might want to take a look at. If you’re intrigued, we encourage you to set up an informal reading group, maybe with your family, some friends, or perhaps colleagues at work. From our own experience, we’re confident that you’ll find it both enjoyable and enlightening.

Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishigoro (and also a movie starring Anthony Hopkins). Is it enough simply to be diligent in carrying out your responsibilities? What if you are working for a person or an enterprise with dubious integrity?

Antigone, by Sophocles. The hardest moral questions aren’t between right and wrong. Rather, they involve reconciling competing obligations, choosing, if you will, between right and right.

“Blessed Assurance,” a novella in Alan Gurganus’s White People. Here the question is character. Can virtuous behavior atone for past sins?

32. Prepping for Difficult Conversations

Greetings from Kim Leary and Mike Wheeler, co-hosts of Agility at Work. And for our latest episode, we’re co-authors of this description of our latest episode.

It’s Kim here at the top, introducing our guest Sheila Heen, who teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School, and offers training and consulting through Triad Consulting Group. This is an encore appearance with us for Sheila. Last year she joined us to discuss her book Thanks for the Feedback!, co-authored with Doug Stone.

This time she describes an exercise—a very imaginative one—that she’s developed to help her students to prepare for difficult conversations. Running the numbers and reading the small print is important, of course, but it’s not nearly enough. You have to be emotionally ready, too.

What strikes me is how this exercise could be easily adapted for use in prepping for tough conversations in the real world. I’ll pass the authorial baton over to Mike, as he knows about this firsthand. (Sheila recruited him to play the cranky, impatient, thin-skinned, distracted guy.)

Mike here. Thanks for the intro, Kim. You were kind not to say that I was well cast for the role.

I’ve been teaching negotiation for a long time, but Sheila’s exercise taught me a lot about making experiential learning really stick. First, as you’ll hear, Sheila had her students converse with someone other than a classmate. I’m sure that made the experience more realistic—and more of a challenge.

Second, she staged it in an office of sorts, sitting behind a desk that served as a formidable barrier, between me and the trainees. Plus she provided me with a backstory that explained why the character I was playing was in such a foul mood.

Third, she videoed the conversations so that students could review their performance and get coaching. They also got to observe other students struggling with the challenges I put forth.

You’ll hear more in this episode. Does it take time and effort to pull together something like this? Yep. But where the stakes are high and a relationship is strained, investing in emotional preparation is well worth it.

31. Agile Leadership in a Time of Rapid Change

We have two guests in this episode. That’s a first for us! They’re Noah Susskind and Samantha Stephens, colleagues at McKinsey, the global consulting company.

Noah is deeply into cybersecurity. He shares some of his experiences in our four-way conversation and will come back soon to say more. The focus here is on Samantha’s work on agile leadership—and that’s what cohost Kim Leary teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Samantha describes how traditional command and control leadership just doesn’t work in today’s fast-paced world. We’re flooded with information, far too much for anyone to master, and changes come, both bad and good, a mile a minute.

It falls to teams of people, with different responsibilities and often differing perspectives, to figure out jointly what needs doing and how to do it.

The task of the agile leader is ensuring that the team has shared vision—ideally an inspiring one—that they are working toward, something that they’ve had a voice and a hand in creating.

As their leader, Samantha sees herself as a coach in this process, encouraging experimentation and ongoing learning. As she explains, she didn’t come into this role naturally. She had to experiment and learn herself.

What she has discovered about leading others applies in organizations large and small.

30. Reading the Room

Our guest for this episode of Agility at Work is Erin Egan. She does business development for Amazon—acquiring technology, partnering with other companies, and sometimes taking a leading role in buying them. She previously did this sort of work for Microsoft and, in France, with Airbus.

In short, Erin is a full-time negotiator. And she loves aspects of that process that most people find stressful.

“I love the unknown. I love the ambiguity,” she says. “I like having to read people, and just the twists and turns you go through trying to find a path where you get what you want. I find that endlessly fascinating!” Same is true for the negotiations she does in her day-to-day life. (You’ll hear Erin tell a story about how she used her bicycle as a trade-in for a car.)

It could be that Erin’s delight comes from a rare gift she has, the ability to read interpersonal dynamics. That comes in hand in negotiation when people are being less than truthful or when people on the other team have competing agendas.

The source of her skill stems from something that many people would regard as a disadvantage. For her, though, it gives her a huge edge at the bargaining table.

29. Negotiating Creative Differences

Lots has been written about negotiating transactions—exchanges where I grant you something, in return for something else that you’ll turn over to me. I give you money (not too much, I hope) for your truck. You then use some of that to pay your piano teacher for your kids. And so on.

But what about when it’s not physical objects or services that are on the table. Instead, it’s an idea, or a personal vision. Not something that can be easily traded. Most of us often do this kind of negotiation, though perhaps without deeply thinking about it.

It may be at work where your team is designing a new initiative. Maybe it’s in your community where you think an old school should be restored, but others think it should be torn down to create a vest pocket park.

These kinds of negotiations are light years away from conventional horse-trading. The ideas, the visions, are intangible. Their value is often hard to measure in financial terms. Yet people may feel passionately about what they envisage as it’s close to their identity. When someone rejects your concept, it can feel like a personal rejection.

Amy Chu, our guest in this episode, is back for an encore appearance. You may remember how she—with degrees from Wellesley College, MIT, and HBS—spoke with us about negotiating her way into a highly competitive, male-dominated field: writing comics.

It’s also a field that requires collaboration among people with distinct talents and often conflicting ideas about how visual stories should be told. A writer lays out the script (Amy). Someone else does the line drawing. Another person colors that in. Yet another inks in the text.

A writer like Amy must have a rich imagination, of course. But she also must be adept at fostering collaboration within a team whose members see things in different ways. Amy explains what she’s learned in the comics industry. Her focus is on the relational dimension of the process. We think her insights apply across the board, whatever your endeavor.

Take a listen!

28. The Vanishing Workplace

When the pandemic finally gets under control—soon we hope—work for many people will not go back to the way it was before.

Some people may go back to their offices but not necessarily every day. Others, who’ve moved to places where housing is cheaper and life less hectic, will engage with colleagues only remotely, just as they’re doing today. What will that mean for those people—and for their companies?

Our guest this episode is our own colleague, Ethan Bernstein, who teaches Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. Starting in March 2020 he’s been on a team of researchers tracking the experience of a group 600 U.S-based white-collar employees. Every two weeks, the team has been polling these people about how they’re feeling on multiple levels.

In our conversation, Ethan shared news with us that was both good and bad. On the positive side, the results showed that the stress of working from home quickly abated for many people. (That’s not been the case, of course, for those with children to care for.) People quickly became more confident about their Zoom skills. Many expressed the feeling that “we’re all in it together.”

Over time, however, the researchers have seen workplace networks shrink. Connections among people working closely with one another have remained strong. What’s been lost, though, are random connections with others, the ones we used to have bumping into co-workers at the proverbial water cooler. That’s a loss on a personal level and, as Ethan notes, it can also constrain organizational creativity.

27. The Art—and Importance—of Telling Stories When You Negotiate

Our friend and colleague Josh Weiss is our guest in this episode. He’s the author of Real World Negotiation: Successful Strategy from Business, Government, and Daily Life.

As you’ll hear, Josh’s book draws important general lessons from seemingly very different kinds of cases (most of them far from our own experience). But Josh knows that real stories often offer more useful and powerful lessons than does abstract theory, no matter how elegantly crafted. Real world examples are far more engaging, credible, and memorable.

And as fate would have it, early in our conversation Josh proved that point when he told us a story that appears in his book. It’s about an emotionally disturbed man, carrying a rope, who climbed high in a tree. He was threatening to hang himself. A patient policeman talked him down by helping the man save face.

“Interesting,” you might say, “but what does that have to do with the kind of negotiation that I do?”

“Plenty,” would be Josh’s answer. In his artful telling, the story is about many things: staying centered in a stressful situation, listening deeply, and at the heart of it, building rapport—all of which are essential qualities in many negotiations.

And here’s what’s great! As Josh relates how the policeman talked the man down, note how the two of us (Kim and Mike) got drawn in the tale and shared our own impressions of what it meant.

It was a wheel within a wheel. His story prompted us in real time to think anew about story telling in negotiation. As you listen, be mindful of how it sparks your own thinking about moving conversations forward.

26. Learning Outside of Class

Two episodes ago, we heard our friend and HBS colleague Joe Badaracco suggest that we give ourselves permission to step back and reflect, at least for a few minutes every day. Turn away from the computer screen, he said. Put your smart phone away. Simply look out the window at the clouds passing by. Let thoughts and feelings come to you as they may. Making it a regular practice will improve your decision-making and lead to a more satisfying life.

In the same spirit, our guest here, Frank Barrett, offers another way to open your mind and spark your creativity. It’s an encore appearance for Frank, the author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.

Frank has worked in two very different worlds. He has taught for many years at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His students are high-ranking officers, some of them admirals. Before doing that, he was a professional jazz pianist, on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band. Some of the most important learning he’s seen in both contexts has taken place inadvertently.

Frank tells the story of how a low-ranking sailor, who had just come on board a ship in the Pacific, dramatically grabbed the arm of the captain who was steering the ship in a thick fog. Touching a senior officer is a serious violation of Navy protocol. But this captain was on course to run the vessel aground. The captain learned something important about navigation, of course, but others on the bridge who witnessed the incident learned a lesson as well: sometimes you have to break the rules.

Frank also describes a different kind of learning for musicians, not when they’re performing or rehearsing, rather when they’re “jamming,” or just playing for the love of it with no fear of making mistakes. Sometimes they stumble, but so what. And when they get in a groove, they’ve created something new and exciting.

Think of your own experience. What have you seen a colleague do—not in a workshop or class—that taught you an important lesson? And how about conversations at the water cooler (or now, on Zoom)? When did someone offer a thought that was entirely off topic, yet proved to be a great idea?

If it seems like it’s been a while, just sharpen your senses a bit. Your best learning may arise outside the classroom.

25. The Upside of Being Brash: Lessons from an Agent

Our guest in this episode in Peter Sawyer, a New York-based agent who negotiates for a living.

Peter has represented Hollywood stars and Broadway actors, along with authors and pro athletes. He seemingly relishes the process of negotiation as much as the result. From where we sit, it looks like a juggling act: setting realistic expectations for his clients; getting producers and publishers to answers his calls; and, as he often does, crafting promotional deals to enhance his clients’ visibility—and their bank accounts.

Peter’s been at it for a long time. When he was young, he represented tennis champion Arthur Ashe and Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. Some of clients, like William Shatner (Star Trek) and three-time Academy Award nominee Jack Palance, became close friends.

Right now, in the midst of the pandemic, Peter is lining up two projects for when it abates. One is a profound play about life and death by a Pulitzer Prize-winner, to be produced in London’s West End. At the same time, he’s in the midst of a deal for a new real-life TV series about “connected” cops (as in, officers friendly with the mob).

Peter claims no formal training in negotiation. Instead he learned from personal experience and has shifted his approach as his industry has changed.

In a reflective moment, Peter says—at least half seriously—that he may have been more effective when he was young and green. “One of the things that I think is really critical is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, you can be very brash and bold.”

Check it out. Might that be you one day?

24. Gaze Out the Window

Our guest in this episode is HBS Professor Joe Badaracco. His latest book is Step Back: Bringing Reflection Back into Your Life. Joe begins with a story about a private equity guy who invests in start-ups and sits on their boards. He always tells young CEOs that if he ever walks into their office and finds them with their feet up on the desk, staring out the window, he’ll double their salary. He wants them to know that it’s okay to reflect, even daydream.

But why do we need permission when we know that stepping back not only helps us make wiser decisions, but also likely leads to a better quality of life? It’s because knowing something and actually doing it aren’t the same thing. On any given day many of us are working overtime to put out fires and meet looming deadlines. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a chance to think about the picture. But tomorrow never comes.

Joe lays out three steps to make reflection a daily habit. One is what he calls “downshifting.” That might be taking a few moments to lift your eyes and watch a tree swaying in the breeze. The next is “pondering,” taking an issue and consciously trying to see it from a variety of perspectives. Finally, there’s “measuring up.” It’s about considering the various ways you could evaluate success. (Sometimes that involves making the best of a bad situation.) In the smallest of nutshells “stepping back” boils down to being, thinking, and doing.

Get started yourself by listening to Joe describe how other people, seasoned leaders and those just beginning their careers, allow themselves time to slow down and reflect.

23. Do the Right Thing. Mostly.

What do you owe others—if anything—in regard to honesty, fairness, and how you use power?

That’s a core question every time you negotiate. And it’s just as important when you’re leading a group, large or small. Often, though, the hardest choices aren’t between drawing the line between right and wrong. Rather, they’re about reconciling competing obligations. Choosing between right and right, if you will.

Say, for instance, your organization is on the edge of a cliff financially. Does that give you license to use deception to strike a better deal with a customer or a supplier? Your first impulse might be to say “no.” If so, good for you. On the other hand, you are protecting your conscience at no cost to you personally. It’s your employer who will be worse off.

In this episode we get guidance on such questions from our friend and HBS colleague Max Bazerman. Over the years Max has written extensively about the psychology of decision-making, the irrational biases that can warp our thinking. Now Max has a new book: Better, Not Perfect: A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness.

Max counsels us to be wary of aspiring to be perfect saints. Having high ideals is admirable, but very hard to do, especially in these challenging days. But that doesn’t justify ignoring practical standards of moral responsibility. We should always take into account the broader social consequences of what we do and say. The good should outweigh the bad.

Here’s a tip from Max: to make better moral decisions don’t do it on the fly. Beforehand, as you’re preparing for a negotiation or a key meeting, anticipate the tough moral questions that might arise. What are your values and how will you balance them in this case?

22. Not in My Backyard

Big cities and small towns have at least one thing in common: they’re hot houses for breeding costly conflicts.

In a leafy suburb, the Hatfields’ application for a zoning variance to expand their house can spark a fight with the McCoys next door, who want to protect their own views. In a metro area, economic development advocates seeking to lure new industries can count opposition from others concerned about adverse environmental impacts.

The irony is that in many such cases, there are legitimate concerns on all sides. But in the public hearings and courtrooms where these battles are fought, they become win-lose contests. And everyone—even bystanders like us—stand to lose. The disputants must dig deep and pay their lawyers, of course. In turn, public officials have to spend days, months, and sometimes years on these cases, when they could be engaged in something else more productive.

And more subtly, but just as important, the rest of us—the innocent bystanders, if you will—can lose, as well. Courts and regulators only can declare who’s the victor and who is vanquished, with little power to fashion more creative solutions in the broader public interest.

Our guest for this episode is MIT Professor Larry Susskind, who has long championed an alternative process—multi-stakeholder negotiation supported by a neutral mediator/facilitator to promote mutually beneficial outcomes. This isn’t pie in the sky. In our conversation, Larry describes how his real-world approach works in these controversial cases. And his achievements in the public realm are equally relevant for multi-party conflicts in the private sector—even for internal clashes, as well.

Want a hint about the secret of his success? The title of one of his books is Breaking Robert’s Rules.

21. Hustle: Negotiating Your Unique Career

Here’s the challenge. Imagine you want to change your career—radically. Perhaps you’re tired of what you’ve been doing. Maybe you’re excited about doing something very different. It could be both. But how do you leap into a new world where you have no experience and no connections? (Oh, and just to make it harder, whatever your gender, assume that you’re a woman trying to break into a male-dominated field.)

Our guest for this episode is Amy Chu, who took on that challenge and succeeded spectacularly. Amy is a graduate of Wellesley College, MIT, and the Harvard Business School. She had an impressive career in business, but in 2010 she made a bold move, jumping into the comics industry. She explains how she drew on lessons she learned about strategy in her prior life to build a network of collaborators and supporters. But she also recognized that dealing with creative people is very different from negotiating with number-crunchers.

Her big break came when she—a newcomer—was able to recruit Lara Hama (the creator of G.I. Joe) to illustrate a short story she had written. After that, the dominos tipped in her favor. Since then she has co-founded Alpha-Girl Comics, written for both Marvel and DC, and worked with Netflix and other outlets.

If you’re dreaming about making a big jump yourself (or if you’re just curious about how Amy nailed her landing), take a listen.

20. Entrepreneurial Negotiation

Let’s say you’ve got a great idea. No, amp that up. Your idea is truly brilliant. For example, if you’re in business, let’s say that you’ve come up with something that will disrupt the marketplace. Or if you work in a not-for-profit, you’ve designed a program that will significantly improve the lives of the people you serve.

Congratulations! There’s just one little problem: you don’t have the resources to pull it off.

Maybe you need funding. Or if you’re a big organization, you need to win support from higher-ups. Perhaps you need to recruit more talent. Or it could be tech help that’s lacking. Whatever the missing ingredient is, you’ll have to negotiate to get it. And to do that successfully, you must get others to buy into your vision.

Our guest in this episode is Samuel (Mooly) Dinnar, co-author with Larry Susskind of Entrepreneurial Negotiation: Understanding and Managing the Relationships that Determine your Entrepreneurial Success.

Mooly describes the traps that hopeful entrepreneurs often fall into and how to avoid them. He also points listeners to great videos that he and Larry have posted on this intriguing topic. So, take a listen!

19. Is Silence Killing Your Company’s Strategy?

Your boss just announced a bold new initiative. But you and your colleagues who do the nitty-gritty work on the ground know that his plan is bound to crash. He says that his door is always open—and he may really mean it—but are you willing to deliver the bad news?

Our guest in this episode of is Harvard Business School Professor Mike Beer. His latest book—Fit to Compete—describes how in too many companies and organizations, people are afraid of speaking truth to power. And that disconnect between those who craft strategy and those who will actually implement it is a recipe for failure and distrust.

This can happen in companies both big and small, especially ones that have a top-down, hierarchical culture. But there is a solution. Mike describes a process for promoting honest conversations with everyone in your organization, so that problems are addressed and opportunities for innovation are recognized.

As you’ll hear, Mike Beer’s ideas complement Kim’s work in adaptive leadership. There’s a negotiation angle, as well.

18. Her Place at the Bargaining Table: Gender and Negotiation

Our colleague Hannah Riley Bowles, from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, joins us in this episode to share her research on the subtle role that gender plays in how people prepare for and manage negotiations.

Hannah is skeptical of the notion that men are significantly more competitive than women. Studies show that there are plenty of competitive woman and, likewise, a goodly number of cooperative men.

She’s studied people’s goals in negotiation before they sit down to talk. (How much they hope to get, and what they’d settle for if they have to.) It turns out that both numbers are influenced by the gender of the person they will be dealing with. Men demand more from women than they do from other guys. Maybe no surprise there, but women do the same thing! And that goes for first offers and for walk-away numbers, too.

So, what should a woman do when she discovers that a guy who recently joined her company at a lower level is getting paid more than she is? Hannah has some great advice, so listen in!

17. Turning the Tables: How to Transform Weakness into Strength in Negotiation and Leadership

In this episode we have an encore visit with Professor Debbie Kolb, author of Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains. In an earlier conversation, we discussed how gender issues play out in negotiation. This time our conversation is about the challenge of negotiating within your organization. That can be up, down, or sideways.

One morning it might be with your boss about getting a much-deserved raise and promotion. That afternoon it could be with colleagues whose help you need to launch a new initiative. Tomorrow it may involve working with someone who reports to you who is not happy with your plan to shift her responsibilities.

Power comes into play in these negotiations, whatever rung on the hierarchal ladder you’re standing on. And company culture and long-term relationships (be they good or bad) add to the complexity. Debbie explains why, if you want to thrive in this environment, you’ve got to be agile strategically and nimble moment-to-moment.

16. Reading Your Own Mind: Self-Awareness, Compassion, and the Search for Truth

We sometimes see things not as they are, but as we are. Our unchecked emotional baggage and assumptions can distort how we interpret (and thus respond to) what other people say and do. Missing other people’s signals can make bad situations even worse.

In this episode, University of California Professor Clark Freshman explains the importance of self-awareness in both leadership and negotiation. (You may remember his earlier visit when he spoke about lie detection—how to tell whether someone who says “this is my final offer—take it or leave it” is bluffing or telling the truth.)

Here he touches again on that topic, but the central focus of this conversation is how failing to be honest with ourselves hobbles relationships with others. Clark shares his practical tips for deepening self-awareness, and co-host Kim Leary adds her insights from her years of practice as a clinical psychologist.

15. Thanks for the Feedback!

There are scads of books, articles, and even courses on how to give effective feedback. That’s no surprise. Directing other people is at the core of what managers do, after all, whether it’s in annual performance reviews or off-hand comments after a task has been completed. Giving feedback is likewise part of a teacher’s job, part of grading papers and leading classroom discussion. And in families, the exchange of feedback—positive and negative; explicit and between the lines—is a constant process. (And unfortunately, not always a healthy one.)
Sheila Heen, our guest in this episode, says we’ve got things upside down. If we want work teams to be more productive or if we’d like personal relationships to flourish, instead of obsessing about giving feedback, we should focus on the art of getting constructive advice. Sheila explains how—with the right mindset, coupled with deft interpersonal skills—you can proactively shape constructive conversations at work, at home, and in your communities.

14. Agile Strategy and Negotiation Success

Great negotiators are like great athletes in at least one respect: they’re keenly in the moment but at the same time they also see the big picture. Better than their competition, they know how to change the game in their favor.

Today Andy Wasynczuk joins us for another episode. Andy’s been teaching negotiation at the Harvard Business School for a bunch of years now. In his prior life, he was Chief Operating Officer of the New England Patriots. In our conversation, Andy explains how the Kraft family sequenced a series of successful negotiations—sometimes against significant odds—to acquire a moribund team and lay the foundation for building one of the most successful franchises ever in pro sports.

13. How to Be Quicker on Your Feet

After a tough negotiation, ever catch yourself thinking, “Oh, I wish I said this, or I should have done that”? But there’s nothing you can do about it now. Your mental light bulb clicked on too late.

In this episode we call back our friend Lakshmi Balachandra, who teaches negotiation and entrepreneurship in nearby Babson College. Prior to earning her doctorate, she juggled a career in which she worked in private equity during the day and improv comedy by night.

In this episode Lakshmi explains how knowing the basic rules of improv will make you quick on your feet as a negotiator, side-stepping obstacles and seizing unexpected opportunities when they pop up.

12. The Dark Side of Experimentation

Have you signed a consent form to participate in an experiment recently? Ever done so?

You might answer no, but actually the odds are high you’ve been conscripted without ever knowing it. That’s the message in a new book, The Power of Experiments, by our Harvard Business School colleagues Mike Luca and Max Bazerman. In this episode Mike describes both the positive and negative impacts of concealed research.

On the upside, it has taught public officials how to increase organ donations significantly by having people opt out of such programs, instead of asking them to opt in. But on the downside, Facebook, without permission, manipulates its user’s moods by how it framed their newsfeeds. And Amazon was caught sneaking unrequested gift suggestions into people’s wedding registries. To learn more about this troubling trend, listen in!

11. Been There/Done That: How to Unlearn What You Think You Know

Professor Frank Barrett, jazz pianist and author of Yes to the Mess, returns for an encore. In this episode he talks with Agility at Work co-hosts Mike Wheeler and Kim Leary about how old habits and assumptions stifle creativity in both negotiation and leadership. It’s one thing to recognize the trap, but quite another to wiggle out of it. In our conversation Frank draws on his experience teaching organizational behavior at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He shares training examples from the military to break out of old patterns and spark fresh thinking.

10. Think Twice Before You Lean In

Our guest in this episode is HBS Professor Christine Exley, who has raised a caution flag about the popular notion that women short-change themselves by not negotiating enough. If it were true, the cost would be significant, especially when it comes to salary. But as Christine and her co-authors reported in a recent HBR article (“Women Who Don’t Negotiate Might Have a Good Reason”), the difference between men’s and women’s willingness to negotiate is smaller than commonly thought. And, when women decline to negotiate, they’re often exercising good judgment.

9. Lie Detection

The person you’re negotiating with may claim to have a better offer, but is she spinning a lie? And should you trust the contractor who promises to finish building your new house before winter sets? Nobody wants to be scammed, but at the same time we don’t want to doubt people who are telling us the gospel truth. Our guest in this episode is University of California Professor Clark Freshman, an expert on lie detection. Join us for our conversation about deception in negotiations—from little white lies to whoppers—and how to spot them. Here’s one tip: eye contact (or the lack of it) has nothing to do with truth-telling.

8. The Cost of Being Nice in Negotiations

First the good news. Empathy and understanding in negotiation often lead to creative problem-solving and foster productive relationships. This is the core of the win-win approach and it’s been confirmed in numerous studies. The not-so-good news is that being nice may backfire in negotiations that take place on platforms like Craigslist and eBay. In this episode our Harvard Business School colleague Mike Yeomans describes recent research he co-authored. His team found friendly language from negotiators often prompted counterparts to become more demanding. Listen in to hear how you can be firm without being nasty.

7. Perfecting Your Pitch

It’s no surprise that Lakshmi Balachandra is an expert on pitches. After all, she’s a professor in Babson College’s Division of Entrepreneurship. But Lakshmi says pitching isn’t just for entrepreneurs seeking investors. It’s a core skill, whatever your role in the organization. You want a raise, a new assignment, or more resources? You’ll have to pitch your boss. And working on a team, you’ll need to pitch colleagues to win support for your recommendations. Same goes for getting people who report to you to buy into your agenda. In this episode, Lakshmi shares her tips for success. Here’s one hint: don’t be too passionate.

6. Bargaining on Airbnb, Craigslist, and eBay: Is the Table Tilted?

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Luca shares his findings about negotiation in the online marketplace with Agility at Work: One Step Ahead. The good news—most of the time—is that strangers, often miles apart, can nevertheless trust one another to deliver what they promise. Much of that is due to transparency. But there is a downside, too: transparency can lead to discrimination, conscious or otherwise. Luca describes how one company—Airbnb—struggled with that dilemma.

5. Negotiating Within Your Company: Power, Gender, and the Unwritten Rules of Engagement

Professor Deborah Kolb, author of Negotiating at Work, joins One Step Ahead co-hosts Mike Wheeler and Kim Leary to discuss the special challenges of negotiating within your organization. That may be negotiating up for a raise. Down to get real buy-in from your people. Or sideways to help your team go in the right direction. And in all of those settings, you’re negotiating long-term working relationships. Take a listen and learn how to do it well.

4. Negotiating with Emotion!

In this episode of Agility at Work: One Step Ahead, co-hosts Mike Wheeler and Kim Leary describe their research on the thoughts and feelings—most of them negative and unproductive—that many people bring to the bargaining table. Together they lay out a six-step process of being emotionally prepared to perform at your best when you negotiate.

3. Motivating Your Top Talent

Andy Wasynczuk, the former Chief Operating Officer of the New England Patriots, is the guest in this episode of Agility at Work: One Step Ahead. Nowadays Andy teaches Managing, Organizing, and Motivating for Value at Harvard Business School. Co-hosts Mike Wheeler and Kim Leary hear from Andy about how the Patriots management team induced its star players to attend “optional” off-session training sessions—without spending an extra dime.

2. The Jazz of Negotiation

In this episode of Agility at Work: One Step Ahead, co-hosts Mike Wheeler and Kim Leary talk with Frank Barrett, author Yes to the Mess (Harvard Business Publishing). Together they explore important lessons for negotiators about improvising and creativity from jazz masters. Frank teaches organizational behavior at the Naval Postgraduate School—and is also a superb jazz pianist.

1. Welcome to Agility at Work: One Step Ahead!

Co-hosts Mike Wheeler and Kim Leary welcome listeners to Agility at Work: One Step Ahead! Mike has been teaching negotiation at the Harvard Business School for twenty-five years. He focuses on strategic agility and quick-on-your-feet tactics. Kim’s specialty is adaptive leadership, which she teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and its Chan School of Public Health. In the weeks ahead, they will interview researchers and practitioners who work at the intersection of negotiation and leadership.