A ‘Good Book’ for Heads of Department.

DarthEvery academic head of department should read the book Getting to Yes. Although it is  a book about how to negotiate, originating in the Harvard Negotiation Project, it applies to a huge range of situations that are not normally thought of as negotiations. It is like a bible for the day to day business of running a department.

The essence of the book is that there are four steps you should take if you want a negotiation to have a good chance of success. They are:-

  1. Separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem that you are negotiating about.
  2. Deal with the problem in terms of the interests of the relevant parties, and not in terms of the positions they wish to adopt.
  3. Invent options for mutual gain.
  4. Use objective criteria to evaluate possible solutions.

My experience, both as a head of department and as a manager of heads of department, is that these four steps are like four commandments for running a department in a way that supports academic endeavour. Let’s take them in order.

Separate the person from the problem

The first commandment is to separate the person you are negotiating with from the problem you are negotiating about. This makes it possible to turn negotiation from a confrontation into a collaboration in which people work together to solve a shared problem.

In management you get a similar benefit from separating the person from the problem: it reduces confrontation and makes it easier to solve problems. But you get several other benefits. For example:-

There is also a more general benefit of the first commandment. It makes it easier to manage people, especially people that you might be tempted to think of as “difficult’ and in situations that give rise to difficulty and disagreement.

Focus on interests, not positions

The second commandment is to represent the negotiation problem in terms of interests (what each party would like get from a solution), rather than positions (the  outcomes preferred by the negotiating parties). This makes it possible to look widely for ways of satisfying the interests of both parties and potentially to find an outcome that satisfies more interests for both parties than either of their starting positions. Part of the reason for this is that dealing with interests makes it possible to consider interests that are not strictly part of the immediate problem, such as the desire to maintain a long-term relationship, as we shall see when we get to the third commandment.

In management, the second commandment makes it much easier to change the way things are done in order to produce better outcomes. When people focus on positions, on what they do, it can be quite hard to persuade them to do anything other than what they have always done. Focusing on interests makes it possible to have discussions about the benefits of change without getting blocked by concerns about who does what.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The third commandment is to invent options for mutual gain. You add extra factors to the negotiation in order to make the outcome better for both parties. This is possible when something that is of great value to one party can easily be provided by the other.  A simple example is when a car dealer takes your old car  in ‘part exchange’ when they sell you a new one. Usually this creates mutual gain because the dealer will make an extra profit from your old car and because you will be saved the trouble of selling it yourself. This is why dealers pay unrealistically high prices for ‘part-exchange’ cars.

Inventing options for mutual gain is hugely important in management, both in dealing with individuals and in creating strategies for departments, faculties and institutions. At an individual level, you invent options in order to persuade people to  take on  tasks that they might otherwise be reluctant to do, although you also do your best to select  tasks that best suit each individual. At a broader level, inventing options is part of how you create strategies that reconcile apparently conflicting interests. For example, increasing numbers of UK institutions are creating graduate teaching assistantships (GTA), which pay PhD students to teach and, which, if they are well designed and implemented,  can improve both undergraduate teaching and research while saving money. I should emphasise that, for GTA schemes as for most strategic initiatives, good outcomes depend on good design and implementation: it is very easy to run a GTA scheme that costs money and damages both research and teaching.

Use objective criteria

The fourth commandment is: use objective criteria. In negotiating, when you make your criteria objective it becomes possible to discuss what an acceptable outcome might be, and to analyse outcomes and their implications.

In management, using objective criteria makes it possible to be rational about issues that otherwise can become emotional battlegrounds. Management decisions that can have huge emotive impact, ranging from failed applications for promotion to refusals to replace retired colleagues can be subjected to analysis and used to formulate plans for future success.

How useful is the book?

I first read ‘Getting to Yes’ ten years ago, when I had a disagreement with my dean, which my coach suggested I might resolve  by negotiation. I read the book in an afternoon and it had a huge impact on my ability to operate as a head of department. I used to find that my management successes could usually be attributed to my following one or more of its commandments and my failures could be explained by neglecting to do follow them. When I was a dean I would frequently buy copies of the book for my reports to help them understand my approach to management.

On the other hand, the book’s influence on my ability to negotiate with the dean was less clear. When I had read the book, I asked him for a meeting. He refused to meet me; instead he resolved our disagreement by giving me everything I had asked for. Maybe I could have done better by negotiating with him but it’s hard to see how!