Several times in my career I have been asked to help resolve a particularly difficult situation because the team said they needed “a tough negotiator.”
The notion of the “tough" negotiator has a cache to business folks, fostered by the likes of William Shatner on Priceline commercials, performing karate moves to get the deal he wants. My response has always been to say, “If you’re looking for a tough negotiator, you called the wrong guy. I am a disciplined and collaborative negotiator. I’m not tough.”
Frankly, I don’t know what it means to be a “tough” negotiator. I imagine what people equate with “toughness” is an undisciplined, stubborn, positional negotiator. One who thinks “win-win” means they win twice, and the other side loses twice. One who lacks the creativity and confidence to dig deeper and find hidden opportunity for collaboration in an engagement that would create more value. I have encountered that style at large manufacturing and retail companies that treat all vendors like they are selling commodities. All that matters is price. That shortsightedness is costing them dearly in the marketplace because it limits a service provider’s ability to bring innovation that might provide the client a competitive edge.
The latest poster child for “tough” negotiators is Donald Trump, who fancies himself as a master deal-maker. Mr. Trump has obviously had success. What we don’t know is how much more success he could have had using a different negotiation style. From his outward appearances, Mr. Trump seems to favor a bullying kind of style, one that drives the other party to concessions so he gets what he wants. He proudly stated that he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and get Mexico to pay for it because he’s that good as a negotiator. If I were the president of Mexico, I would prepare my team for that discussion with one key caveat: we will never agree to pay for the wall. I don’t know what Mr. Trump’s style is once he gets in the room. Perhaps this is an act he puts on and is highly collaborative at the negotiation table, sort of a one-man “good cop/bad cop.”
The potential problem with Mr. Trump’s style is it does not engender trust in the discussions, leading to lost value in the deal. People often talk of not leaving money “on the table.” I prefer to say “don’t leave money under the table.” It’s easy to see the money on the table. It takes a special deal team to bring trust to a relationship so that both parties work together to find the hidden value in the deal. That requires appreciation for the other party’s interests; creativity in generating options and legitimacy in the asks of either side.
“Tough” negotiators don’t care about the other party’s interests. “Tough” negotiators have only one set of options; their own. And with a “tough” negotiator, legitimacy or fairness in demands is always a test of the other party’s BATNA.
So while it might seem impressive to hear of “tough" negotiators who “break” the other side in a negotiation, ask yourself: where does such behavior leave the relationship? Has is maximized the value the parties could have built together? And next time, will the other side look forward to an opportunity to do business again? Or will they use it as a chance to “get even” based on their previous experience?