Fairness in negotiations

Here is a typical piece of advice that is given in relation to preparing for negotiations:

Fairness: Think of what fairness criteria you will use to support your value proposition and guarantee that the potential agreement will be sustainable. You always want to be fair, even when you hold more power. Remember, you might have to sit down to the table with this party again and you do not want to gain the reputation of being an unfair negotiator.

I actually disagree with the key idea that negotiators have to be fair – in my experience many negotiators don’t care about their reputation for being fair. They do care about being seen as ethical, credible, reliable, trustworthy, etc.

Fairness is actually a very subjective concept. I think great negotiators will do everything they can do achieve as good an outcome as they can (my definition of good includes sustainable, i.e. not one that the other side will seek to undo as soon as possible because it is not in their interest or because they were coerced into it).After all that is their job as a negotiator – to achieve as good an outcome as possible.

To do so negotiators will, amongst other things,  seek to apply or project power as much as they can to either strengthen their hand or in some cases, weaken the other side’s negotiation position. This is considered legitimate as long as it does not involve unethical practices (e.g. lying, threatening violence, etc.). Fairness does not come into it – after all – the other side has a veto and can always choose to say no. If they choose to say yes they must have a reason.

I do think that great negotiators care about building and maintaining a reputation for being honest, credible and reliable. Certain, usually tricky, situations can be managed better when both sides know they can rely on the other side’s commitments or statements. This becomes easier when you have already negotiated with someone and know that they deliver on their promises. Fairness does not come into it.

The other problem I have with the advice cited above is that it implies that you can support a value proposition through justification, i.e. argumentation. Although I agree that negotiations require a rational basis, poor negotiators often rely too much on argumentation based on facts and logic and not enough on understanding the needs, requirements and constraints of the other side. By all means demonstrate the value of what you are proposing but understand that the other side will decide if they agree (they may pretend not to).

Being fair is nice in theory but will not take you far if you are up against a tough, experienced and determined negotiator. Being smart, well prepared and credible will.

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