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Four Productive Ways To Get Confrontational At Work

You sometimes have to change the game to make others want to cooperate.

Four Productive Ways To Get Confrontational At Work
[Photo: Two Rams Fighting via Wikimedia Commons]

Most businesses don’t need to be sold on the value of cooperation. It seems self-evident, at least in principle. But in practice, not everybody is interested in cooperating. Researchers have found what every new kid on the playground learns all too soon–that those with more power are more inclined to be egocentric in pursuing goals, less empathic, less compassionate, and more likely to argue for dividing the proverbial pie in ways that leave them the biggest slice.

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It would be nice if simply listening more empathically or talking things out could change their tactics. But it often won’t, especially at work. Sometimes you have to make life worse, or at least riskier, for your more powerful counterparts in order to make them collaborate with you. And that may mean getting a little more confrontational–just not in the way you might think.

Let’s Play Cards

Imagine you’re playing a card game with one other person. Your and your counterpart each have two cards in your hands, a P and a Q. If both of you play P, you each win $1. If you play P and your counterpart plays Q, you lose $3 and she wins $3. If you both play Q, you both lose $1.

Now you’ve got to play nine rounds and come out with a higher balance than your opponent. (There are many versions of this game, some with four players, some with players in separate rooms, etc.)

I’ve run versions of this game thousands of times in more than 20 countries–with undergraduates, MBAs, executives, and CEOs. The most consistent mistake I see? Being too persistently cooperative in the face of ruthlessness. Too many of us play P repeatedly, staring with disbelief at an opponent who smiles and keeps throwing down Qs, maximizing their take. (After all, they were told to do as well as they could.)

Your best bet for changing someone’s persistently selfish tactics is usually to respond in kind, by playing Q yourself. Why? Because that’s the only way a counterpart’s selfish or competitive behavior becomes costly to them in the short term, rather than beneficial–meaning they need to change tactics in order to get back in the black.

In negotiation speak, this is what’s called a “game-changing move,” a way to get the other side to collaborate by changing the way they perceive the relative costs and benefits of different tactics.

“Counter-Anchors” And “Positive ‘No’s”

Jill is a rising star in a creative agency. After being promoted to account manager, she finds herself reporting to the hardworking chief creative officer (CCO), a woman she admires. But the CCO, Treena, has an annoying habit of delegating major tasks late in the week. New to her role, Jill wants to prove herself, so she’s left feeling compelled to put in long hours on Thursdays and Fridays that sometimes bleed into the weekend.

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She starts to ask Treena for a little more lead time, but it doesn’t work. She’s simply asked to “do whatever it takes.” Jill starts to feel resentful.

In hindsight, Jill might have deployed a “counter-anchor” earlier in the relationship with her new boss. In negotiation, an anchor is an opening number or principle that then becomes a powerful point of reference for subsequent negotiations. Jill might have confronted Treena’s “whatever it takes” principle by naming a principle of her own, like the idea of “working smart” or building a “healthy, dynamic team” (as opposed to Treena’s commitment to having her team just grind it out in the eleventh hour, all for the sake of a client).

Jill could also confront her boss by using what author William Ury calls a “positive no”–a no sandwiched between two yesses:

I really want to support you. I also need to be present with my family on weekends, so I can’t do this work for you by Monday. But I’ll brainstorm with you about other options for getting it done, if that’s helpful.

Two Other Ways To Gain Leverage

Both of these tactics are subtly confrontational–Jill is pushing back, but only a little. She’s begun to play Q, but it’s a lowercase q. This way, her game-changing moves are subtle, and are more likely to lure Treena into a collaborative relationship than to backfire.

She has two other options in a similar vein. Jill can reframe the issue as a shared problem. Treena had implicitly framed it as a simple matter of getting work done quickly and at high quality. But Jill could turn it around this way:

I want to be sure we deliver great results to our clients quickly, while also making sure I’m not working late nights or weekends. Can we talk about how to do that?

Now there are two competing objectives that affect them both, not just one goal that affects only Jill.

Finally, Jill can look for ways to add to her arsenal outside of her relationship with her boss that can give her more power within it. This is useful just in case Treena proves unwilling or unable to change tactics. Maybe that means looking for jobs elsewhere or finding a new position within her firm. Or maybe it’s scouting a different client to bring in–one that Jill will have more authority to manage herself, or one that won’t be so demanding.

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Developing a good alternative can be a powerful point of leverage. Armed with a potentially better option, Jill might be able to confront Treen like this:

I really love this job and hope we can work together for a long time, but if we can’t find a way to reduce my workload around nights and weekends, it will be hard for me to stay.

People who think of themselves as pretty cooperative tend to avoid or give in when they’re up against more powerful counterparts at work. But the fact is that using confrontation in these situations isn’t about getting aggressive or being pushy. Do it right, and it becomes a subtle technique for prodding your counterpart back to the table. With a little resolve and a willingness to wade into conflict rather than shrink from it, you can actually build more collaborative partnerships than you’d otherwise think.


Hal Movius is president of Movius Consulting and author of the new book Resolve: Negotiating Life’s Conflicts with Greater Confidence.

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