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Negotiation: tackling our misconceptions | Guardian Masterclasses

Teaching negotiations for the past seven years, I have heard from many people that they simply don’t like negotiating. Surveys show similarly negative attitudes about negotiations in the workplace. According to a recent Glassdoor survey, about 60% of workers do not negotiate their salary. Another survey found that about 50% of workers felt uncomfortable initiating negotiations.

Given that negotiations are essential tools in every domain of our lives, it is important to understand why many of us feel negative and even repulsed by negotiations. Here, I identify three myths we might have about negotiating and discuss what alternative perspectives we can have about it.

1. Negotiations are purely competitive.

The outcome of a negotiation typically includes dividing a pie between two parties. In other words, it is, in part, competition in which one party’s win may likely mean the other party’s loss. Competition, especially for women or individuals who have grown up in a collective culture, is seen as negative and distressful.

However, I suggest that we pay more attention to win-win processes, such as joint problem solving and collaboration, that can occur in the earlier stages of a negotiation. In an attempt to understand each other’s goals and underlying needs, negotiators often develop creative solutions that benefit both parties much more than an impasse would. For example, addressing a violent conflict between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party, Nelson Mandela spent a lot of time understanding the needs and challenges of the Freedom Party. In the end, Nelson motivated the party leader to join his new government di lui. Depending on what we do in it, a negotiation can be value-creating, collaborative, and creative, rather than consistently, purely haggling.

2. Talking about money is greedy.

Greed is one of the words most associated with the act of negotiating. Money topics are taboo in many societies across the globe, and thus we often feel greedy and shallow when talking and asking about money.

However, I would like to remind you that talking about money in negotiations is not necessarily a greedy and selfish act. Recently, in developing new academic programs at my institution, I initiated negotiating a fee structure. Through discussions with many stakeholders, this negotiation helped our school more effectively consider the principle of equity in our fee structure. Likewise, your negotiation on a salary, fees, or the price of a product can create great opportunities to evaluate and improve fairness issues in organizations. Of course, we must be careful not to be too narrow-focused on money itself.

3. Great negotiators are born.

In the past, before entering academics, I used to cast serious doubt on the promises of seminars and workshops about behavioral changes, thinking, “Once I hit the age of 30, I am a fixed entity.”

But after spending a decade researching human behaviors, teaching negotiation courses, and discovering myself, I am now a big believer in change and growth, regardless of our age. Twin studies and related research have shown that more than 50% of our intelligence, personality, and behaviors can be shaped and reshaped constantly. Renowned brain scientists, such as Lara Boyd, have recently found that our brains are capable of changing throughout life.

Thus, to feel and perform better in negotiations, you can consider participating in training. Training does not have to be part of an expensive degree. You can take a short-term course, or you can grab a great book to do role-playing with your friends. The more you expose yourself to systematic tools and simulation opportunities, the more fun and meaningful learnings you will find in negotiations.

Dr. Sunny Lee is an associate professor of organizational behavior and the head of diversity at the School of Management, University College London, and will lead an interactive session on negotiation skills at The one-day MBA on Sunday 24 October 2021. Find her on LinkedIn here.

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