Win-Win Negotiation—Not Always the Right Answer

Hugh MacDonald

What is a negotiation? Is it a contest, or is it a search for common ground? Is it about conflict, or is it a way to allocate resources and solve problems? Is it about winning or losing, or is it possible for everyone to win? Should we be tough, or should we take a softer approach?

The answer to the above questions, all of them, is "Yes." There is no "one right way" to negotiate. We negotiate when we have a dispute or when we are involved in a conflict. We also negotiate when we want to sort through resource allocation problems. We negotiate when we want to make joint decisions. Sometimes after an attempt to negotiate, we walk away. Sometimes we need to be tough-minded. On other occasions it makes sense to be far more conciliatory. Why we negotiate varies, which is why how we negotiate changes. Tactics are situational.

Not all that long ago, the study of negotiation was all about "tactics"—especially tactical advice about how to one-up, or "win" a contest. Roger Fischer, William Ury and a team of scholar-practitioners involved with the Harvard Negotiation Project changed all that. The book, Getting to Yes! (1983), became an instant best seller and inspired millions of people to engage in "principled" negotiation. In it, Fisher and Ury suggested that we stop worrying about tactics and our positions and, instead, focus on our interests—our needs rather than our wants. By doing this, and by working together to develop multiple options and alternatives, Fischer, Ury and their colleagues promoted a negotiation paradigm of creative problem-solving.

They weren’t the first people to focus on this negotiation style. As early as the 1920s, scholars like Mary Follet were writing about the notion of focusing on underlying interests instead of positions. The Harvard community, however, was the first to promote a process for doing it.

This process is popularly known as "win-win" negotiation. However, the phrase "win-win" can cause confusion. Some people think that the goal is win-win at all costs. I’ve seen people focus on the notion of win-win beyond all reason. I’ve seen them apply a well-meaning concern for social justice and fairness and deal with perceived power asymmetries by inappropriately handicapping one side of a commercial negotiation. I’ve seen people walk away from negotiations because both sides did not receive an equal benefit. Although well intended, such notions are not always appropriate.

In truth, Professor Fischer’s book could just as correctly have been titled Getting to No! In it, he submits that one of the first things we should do is understand our best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. If our BATNA is better than what we can get through negotiation, we should walk away—that is, we should not negotiate. That’s not win-win at all costs. Fischer also agrees that there is a priority to the notion of interest-based negotiation. We focus on our interests first and the interests of others second. Our job as negotiators is to make sure that our interests are met. While it is often true that this may mean helping others advance their interests and achieve their own goals—as their doing so is almost always in our own self interest—we should not be advancing the interests of others at the expense of our own.

This sounds wrong to some people—too selfish, too greedy. In fact, enlightened self-interest is what makes principled negotiation work so well. Consider this: A slavish focus on win-win at all costs would tend to smother conflict and level out many disagreements. It would have the impact, intentional or not, of preserving the status quo. To those seeking social justice, it would prevent fundamental shifts in power and privilege. It’s a scary thought, but sometimes it takes more than this to convince the rich and powerful to accept change. Unless wisdom prevails among the powerful—and alas that is not always (or often) the case—sometimes it takes a revolution to bring about radical transformation. The United States did not negotiate its independence from the England. It took a revolution to cut through the diplomatic barrier. Changing the status quo may not be possible with win-win mindsets.

Will and Ariel Durant wrote a tour-de-force history of the world in 11 volumes. It took 40 years. When they were done, they wrote a slim, single-volume book called the Lessons of History (1968). In it they distilled what they had learned. One of their observations was that over time, the rich do get richer. Throughout history elite groups have always ended up accumulating most of the power and wealth. The societies that survived were the ones that, from time to time, found the wisdom or courage to redistribute wealth and resources so that the accumulation could start again. Without the wisdom to negotiate a new order of things when the gap between rich and poor threatens to become too great, we suffer revolution, anarchy and decline. The key to growth and prosperity is innovation and renewal.

The same is true of workplace relationship management. Transformation projects and innovation do not come from preserving the status quo. They come from having the courage and wisdom to embrace change, or from a strong negotiating partner influencing us to accept change. Interest-based negotiation is about creative problem solving…and, if we all focus on our own interests first, any conflict we experience with our partners and clients it is more likely to bring about transformation, change and innovation.

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