Have You Forgotten to Eat at The Table You Set? Why Negotiation Matters in Your Day-to-Day Work

What if your inability to persuade and influence the right people led to a crisis that resulted in thousands of sick kids and in deaths that were thought to be linked to that crisis? In our chief of staff peer group meetings this summer, I have been asking participants to read this article on how the Michigan governor’s chief of staff tried to raise the issues leading up to the Flint, MI, water crisis but was unable to resolve the problems before those problems became a big freaking deal.

While the case study of the Flint water crisis offers lots of problems to solve, negotiation strategies take front and center in our peer group discussions. For example, if you take the concept of “at the table” and “away from the table” discussions in a negotiation, the publicly available emails indicate that the governor’s chief of staff used lots of back channels and off-the-record conversations with Flint officials and community leaders; the Michigan Treasury, Emergency Management, the Department of Environmental Quality; and other stakeholders.  It’s not as clear that he ever brought all those stakeholders into one room as part of a task force, on a regular basis or even until agreement was reached on how to proceed. It’s unclear to what extent the Michigan governor was even apprised of the pending crisis before it became a crisis.  What we know is that the steps taken were ineffectual.

Not long ago, I (re)watched the 2010 remake of the classic Western film True Grit, and I was struck by what a clinic in at-the-table negotiation the film’s 14-year-old main character, Mattie Ross, gives near the beginning of that movie. Victoria Pynchon provides a helpful analysis of Mattie’s negotiation with a horse trader that eventually enables Mattie to hire a U.S. Marshal, buy horses and equipment, and start tracking the man who killed her father. While most of us don’t make decisions of life-and-death weight as Mattie Ross does, we do (hopefully) try to avert crises, whether triggered by a misinterpreted word that negatively shifts the stock markets or by simply preventing others in our organization from being blindsided by negative surprises.

How effective are you at negotiating in everyday situations at work? If you think of an area where you are stuck, is your knowledge of stakeholders as deep or broad as it could be? Have you conducted a thoughtful relationship map or analysis to find and leverage strengths or points of negotiation?

I help C-suite executives and board members assess whether a corporate chief of staff can help them be more effective, find the right people, and manage the first 90–100 days with a chief of staff. I also help chiefs of staff be as effective as they can be.

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