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Why psychological safety is important for negotiators


"Can we check our collective psychological safety before we start?"


This was the question asked of me before recently embarking upon a couple of days of client consultancy. Despite 18 years of training, coaching and consulting this was the first time I’d been asked this at the start of a piece of work. Given what we’ve all experienced over the last three years, I guess I really shouldn’t have been too surprised.


This got me thinking about the impact of psychological safety from a commercial conflict perspective. Now the word ‘conflict’ will illicit varying degrees of stress and resultant thoughts about our own ‘safety’. There are those factors that will have a direct impact on stress and therefore safety – personalities/subject matter/power etc. It, of course, may not always be realistic to expect the other side to be collaborative, open and engaged.


There are however more subtle, less obvious, factors which can also impact on our own psychological safety when we’re going to negotiate.



Authority


In our Savage Macbeth Negotiation Skills Assessment (NSA), only 39% of respondents said that they always have full authority to reach an agreement against their objectives.


It's worth bearing in mind that these respondents are mainly from organisations that actively want to give their employees tools to negotiate better deals (that’s why they’re talking to us). I would expect this percentage to drop significantly in a larger, more general sample.


Is it because the respondents don’t feel trusted? It seems ironic to expect people to negotiate well, and with confidence, if they don't feel trusted enough to have the authority to get the deal over the line.


Using a clear, robust and detailed framework within the planning process can help. Demonstrating that we can articulate our goals, formulate strategy and manage the process should encourage more empowerment from the stakeholders to the negotiator(s) – rather than have them worrying about whether their carefully thought out plans will be overruled. Which individual in your organisation do you think the other party will choose to negotiate with next time, if the negotiator is overruled by a senior colleague?



Deal Perception


The NSA also found that 59% of respondents said their deals always create value for both parties. This is great! (The other 41% will need to ensure they create enough value in the deal for both parties to feel they have secured a longer term more reciprocal deal). It’s important that the other party feels there’s enough in the deal for them. Failure to achieve this may mean the deal may not be psychologically safe when it comes to implementation: the other side might lack commitment, they might cut corners or they may use contractual clauses to deliver the bare minimum. If the deal isn’t safe, don’t expect the negotiator’s position to be either!



Teamwork


With around 28 different tasks that can be performed in a negotiation, going in as a team with specific tasks can leverage the sum of the parts when it comes to results. With teamwork comes the need for clearly defined responsibilities – we need to know that our teammate(s) have our back.


We need to feel ‘safe’ that they’re not going to contradict us ‘We need it in one month, not two’ (I’ve seen this), or undermine us ‘that’s not the important issue’ (seen this too) or let the other side off – ‘Can I just summarise before you answer that (great) question. This one is a shocker!


Whilst we can never control everything that happens before, during or after a negotiation, we can take the time to plan and prepare comprehensively – minimising the risks that we are exposed to, thus increasing our own psychological safety and sense of wellbeing.


Sam Macbeth, 6th December 2022



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