Improving your Project Management Negotiating Skills


High-control project managers may be quite capable of getting things done on-time and within budget, but high-control managers seldom if ever lead high-performance teams.  Instead they often achieve conventional results that seldom exceed expectations.

To achieve the kind of results that are demanded in competitive environments, project managers must engage the team and major stakeholders in ways that get the most from each person.  This suggests that managers create an open environment, one that encourages productive conflict, one that encourages communication, and one that encourages shared decision making.

But managing in this complex social environment is a real challenge.  Differences are always surfacing and the project manager must resolve them in a way that maintains a focus on project goals.

What has become increasing clear is that the most effective way to deal with these differences is for managers to assume the role of negotiator when appropriate. In this role they have to ensure that everyone is heard and that differences are resolved in such a way that the motivation to collaborate, contribute, and communicate is preserved among all project stakeholders.

The Three Challenges

There are three challenges that must be addressed to become a more effective negotiator.  First, negotiations take time, and since most projects are on a tight schedule, the natural instinct is to discourage differences because resolving them is often seen as waste of time and a diversion from getting the real work done.  The problem, however, is that when a project manager follows this natural instinct, collaboration is stifled and the full potential of every person on the team is not used.

The second challenge is that project managers are traditionally expected to be in control during the project’s life cycle.  Anything less can be seen as an expression of weakness. This an unfortunate view of the situation since creating a collaborative environment actually requires more control not less. Indeed it should not be a choice between the extremes of control or no control.   The real challenge is to manage the life cycle so that top-down control is imposed when appropriate while a more collaborative environment, in which differences are negotiated, is imposed at other times.  As a result, the project manager must move between a controlling management style and a negotiating management style.

The third challenge is that project managers must be flexible enough to listen actively, communicate effectively, and negotiate between parties to create effective solutions to problems.  Sometimes they must be willing to reach conclusions and make decisions that would have been rejected if only they were in complete and uncontested control.

Are Negotiators Born Or Made?

Most people are not born negotiators.  But the good news is that negotiation skills can be improved; however, they can’t be improved overnight.  Like any other skill, such as playing the piano, skiing, or golf, the learning process cannot be compressed into a one-day workshop. Yes, a workshop can help, but then comes the real work.

For many people it is useful to identify only one skill that should be practiced.  For example, that skill might be active listening or the ability to refrain from defensive behavior. Then this skill is practiced until it becomes part of one’s natural negotiation and management style. Only then should attention turn to the next skill.

Which skill to practice?  Check out the summary of negotiation skills soon to be added to this website and choose whichever seems most comfortable.  Most music students start practicing the C or F scales and leave E-flat to latter.  Most skiers start on the Novice trails and practice their turns before even contemplating the Black Diamond trails. And most golfers learn how to grip the club, develop a good stance, swing, and keep their eye on the ball before playing on a challenging course.

Coaching Can Help

Finally, it is very difficult to learn a skill and use it without help. Yes, you can learn to ski by watching others, or learn to play the piano from a book. But there is only so much progress that can be made without a good teacher or coach.  Because each one of us is different, we employ these skills differently, and the purpose of a coach is to recognize those differences and work on the problems that will improve your performance

Not long ago, a project manager at a large company called me on the phone. She had participated in a workshop I held several weeks earlier. It had covered a broad range of negotiating skills followed by a lab session during which these skills were practiced using real-life case studies.  She explained that she had used several of those skills at a meeting in which she was trying to convince her team to follow a different approach in solving a difficult IT implementation problem.  Now she wanted to let me know that it didn’t work; her recommendations were ignored.  Frustrated and discouraged, she asked for my help.   She was shocked when I congratulated her for a job well done.  “But, I didn’t win” she complained.  Yes, she failed to win, but she had made a significant leap in changing the way in which she engaged her colleagues.  She was now using an approach that was much more likely to improve her ability to influence project decisions.  I assured her that in time she would benefit from her new behavior and that she should continue the good work.

Breaking that barrier and attempting new behavior is difficult. It probably won’t work the first time and may not even work the second or third time. But eventually the skills become internalized.  Slowly you become a more effective project manager, and these skills become part of your natural management style.  

You can’t learn the musical scale in F today and play a Bach Etude tomorrow, but if you practice you will eventually surprise yourself and others.

Now, the reality is that not all project managers are effective negotiators. Some are more comfortable in “high - control” situations where project authority is clear.  But the evidence from the behavioral sciences suggests that this type of top-down management approach, while it may achieve short-term results does not produce long term sustainable performance. Without an opportunity for stakeholders to be heard and to influence the project management process, few will commit and outcomes may be disappointing.  One answer is to encourage participation and negotiate the differences that will inevitably arise. It is a journey worth taking.

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