In our last Best Practices Forum we discussed negotiation and manipulation, specifically whether or not the best negotiators manipulate. On one hand everyone wanted to enter negotiations with the intention of generating a win-win outcome, but on the other hand most people did not trust that their negotiating partners would be completely forthcoming.
As I listened to all the perspectives what struck me most is the idea of business as a game. The most confident negotiators in the room actually had fun with it. They knew the “rules” and they came ready to play their best. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed successful business people engaging with everything from market analysis to contract negotiations as if they were part of one big fun playground.
So then I did some deep thinking about games. I wondered how successful people approach games? In games, do the best players manipulate? Here are the key insights that came out of our forum discussion and my thinking afterwards:
We Enjoy Games we are Good at
When you think about the games you like to play, chances are you play these games well. Or at least well enough to get a good outcome most of the time. In everything from golf to solitaire to chess, there is an initial learning curve. Some people struggle and experience so much frustration that they decide they don’t like the game and move on to something else, while the players who have some initial success begin to quickly figure out what works and what doesn’t and get more engaged, honing their skills, practicing, and eventually getting better and better at the game.
Once, when I was taking a dance class, I complained to the teacher that I didn’t like a particular step. The teacher replied that usually when students don’t like a step, it’s because they aren’t good at it. The message was clear – keep practicing this step and get better at it, and you’ll probably start liking it.
We Admire People who are Good at the Games we Like
Even though games have winners and losers, we usually don’t resent the winners unless we think they cheated. If they win by skill we admire and watch them so we can learn how to get better ourselves. We like playing games with people who are better than us so we can improve, and “losing” in these cases isn’t very painful. In fact, if we never lose, a game can get boring. Most of us will gravitate to people who play at our own level or a little higher, so we can be challenged and continue to improve, while still winning at least some of the time. In games, the goal isn’t really to achieve a “win-win” outcome. The player with the best combination of skill and luck wins, and most of the other participants still enjoy the experience because they have had some successful plays and small wins along the way. The miserable players are the ones with a long rash of bad luck, or such a low frequency of small wins that there are no highs to mitigate the lows.
Is Manipulation Part of Winning a Game?
In games people have an agenda – to win the game. They have strategies they use to achieve their agenda, and throughout the game they make moves, or decisions, based on the rules and the current state of the game. If someone makes a great move and gets the better of us, we might get frustrated, but we don’t feel betrayed, because as long as they honored the rules of the game, it feels fair.
So why do we feel manipulated so often in business games that involve negotiation, sales or marketing? We hate manipulative marketing messages that we know are “sucking us in” with “techniques” such as well-orchestrated jump pages or limited-time offers. We can’t stand the “used car salesman” stereotype, and are angered at interruptions from telemarketers. And when we walk into a salary or business negotiation, we often brace ourselves against getting taken advantage of. It seems that the rules in the “game” of business aren’t clear, or if they are, we suspect a large majority of people in the business world to be cheating.
Is Manipulation Cheating?
Many people asked me why I chose to use the word “manipulation,” and it’s because most of the time when things don’t feel “fair” in business, we feel taken advantage of, or manipulated. We all have a physiological response to what we perceive as manipulation or unfairness – so it’s easy to recognize. But the problem is, we don’t all have the same definition of what does and does not constitute fairness in this big game of business. For example, many companies withhold information about salaries to their employees. They do this to prevent employees who have lower salaries from finding out about their counterparts who have higher salaries. As soon as I find out I have a lower salary than a peer who does the same work, I’m going to immediately feel taken advantage of. Or I might start feeling insecure and wondering if there is something wrong with me or how I work. Or, maybe I decide I’m just inexperienced at “the game” of salary negotiation and need to master it to achieve a higher salary. People have different perspectives on the fairness of withholding salary information. One perspective holds that each individual is responsible for negotiating a salary that feels fair to him or her, and this is a game that some people are more skilled at than others. Another perspective is that withholding this information is a power play designed to take advantage of people you are pretending to value and partner with. In negotiation, sometimes it is understood and accepted that each party will hold back some information and reveal it later in the process. But experts in communication and leadership have proven over and over again that the best decisions happen when all participants feel safe in laying all their cards on the table at the very beginning. So what are the real rules of this game?
For me, the critical question is where does effectiveness meet fairness? I strongly suspect that the most effective people in business, even those who negotiate, sell, or market for a living, have some standard of integrity, because if they didn’t, others wouldn’t admire them. What I’m not as clear on is where that line is when you dive into the more granular aspects of sales, marketing, and negotiating interactions. For example, is a closing technique such as, “would you like it delivered tomorrow or Tuesday?” a manipulative ploy to get a sale closed before the prospect changes his or her mind, or an honorable way to finalize the details and keep things easy for the customer? Is waiting to hear what the other party wants before revealing what you want a negotiating skill designed to increase your likelihood of “winning”, or an honorable desire to get a good understanding of the other party’s needs?
I do know that when we teach listening and empowering “techniques” in coaching, a great barometer of how manipulative it seems is having someone use the technique on you. Two people can use the same technique on me and from one it feels contrived while from another it feels genuine.
So what I suspect is that it’s not the specific words or techniques that are used in a business interaction, but what we perceive the intention is behind the words, and that comes from a deeper place related to how confident we are or how desperately we are trying to reach a particular outcome.
For the next few months I’m running “phase one” of a personal experiment, where I gather information on effective and ineffective business interactions, winning and losing business “moves”, and how people perceive fairness and unfairness in business situations. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts or feedback during this process! I’ll plan on writing the third article in this series after I have gathered my data.