Negotiation mistake: "I truly know the game!" (overconfidence)

April 19, 2018

Overconfidence in your negotiation skills might lead to insufficient preparation, to positional bargaining, to a compromise or "not good, but better than nothing" settlement, to damaged relationship with your counterpart lack of reflection on assumptions, and to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Each and every situation in which you have to agree with somebody upon a joint direction bears a certain potential for conflict. Especially when you would like to go left and your counterpart right. Searching for a common solution - which fits your needs or both parties’ needs - is a negotiation. This means that you are faced with negotiation situations in your daily job almost all the time. Admittedly, some are more complex than others.

A persistent misconception is that negotiations are kind of zero sum games. Either you win, or you go for a compromise for the sake of the relationship with your counterpart. This image of negotiations is also strengthened by the media. We read about collective wage negotiations, or negotiations between the EU and other states which are full of threats, ultimatums, and where at the end one party gives way. In addition, we are also used to this approach from sports. One team wins, the other loses. How disappointing is a drawn game? We want to see our team dominating the enemy. Or am I wrong?

The misconception that negotiations have to run that way - and only that way - is the reason why many people fear, or at least feel uncomfortable in, such situations in their job. Some are afraid they could not stand heated discussions, that they would come off worst, that they couldn’t match their opponent and that they would have to give up their wishes. Some others are afraid to damage the relationship with their counterpart (client, supplier, joint venture partner and so forth). Out of this wish for harmony they make too many confessions to the other side, and too early in the negotiation process.

But there are also businessmen and women, who think that they have fully understood the essence of the negotiation game. That they know exactly what to do to win. To be confident in your ability to negotiate is good, it leads to facing the counterpart on equal terms. Overconfidence on the other hand leads to an "I know better" attitude, which might have some negative effects on the negotiation process.

"The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him." (Leo Tolstoi)

If you assume you are the best negotiation expert out there, you run the risk of not preparing properly for the negotiation. And I don’t mean the factual preparation, but rather focussing on the counterparts’ person, on the negotiation framework, on the communication with the other party. Which can be dangerous, because you are not equipped for any potential surprises which may arise. You have a rough plan based on "facts“ and you go off to war with it. You stick stoically to the plan, no matter what comes. It is on your counterpart to make concessions. It is obvious that you have to be hard and firm in your actions. Small concessions from your side are prepared and you make them in small steps during the process. Here and there a threat, an ultimatum, and that’s it.

In the short term this plan might even be fruitful. However, in this approach you take flexibility out of the process and you reduce your own room for maneuvering. Usually your counterpart will protest about your behavior and neither of you will overcome the bargaining phase. The best outcome you could hope for here is an arbitrary solution, a compromise, a "not good, but better than nothing" settlement.

Overconfidence in knowing how to play the game paired with a lack of preparation may lead you to step into the process with unverified assumptions about your counterpart and about the negotiation. Your subjective beliefs will become objective truth for you if you don’t question your assumptions beforehand. Then thoughout the negotiation you will search for signs (words, actions, signals, signs) from your counterpart that prove your assumptions to be right; so called self-fulfilling prophecies.

In a nutshell: 

Overconfidence in your negotiation skills might lead to

  • lack of preparation
  • positional bargaining
  • compromise or "not good, but better than nothing" settlement
  • damaged relationship with your counterpart
  • lack of reflection on assumptions
  • self-fulfilling prophecies
ISMAN & Partner
ISMAN & Partner ist eine Unternehmensberatung, die nationale und internationale Konzerne, mittelständische Betriebe und Start-ups, Organisationen und Institutionen bei komplexen Verhandlungs- und Konfliktlösungsprozessen begleitet. 2015 von Calin-Mihai Isman gegründet, unterstützen die Experten für Negotiation & Mediation Manager und Mitarbeiter aus den Bereichen Sales, Einkauf, M&A, Contracting, HR oder IT.


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