Want to be a Chief Negotiator? 10 Questions to Test Your Readiness

As federal labor relations staffs dwindle, more managers are being called upon to negotiate a labor agreement for an agency. Here are a few suggestions from an experienced federal negotiator you should think about before accepting such an assignment.

More Federal Managers are recruited into serving as Agency bargainers as the numbers of experienced labor relations staff continues to dwindle. The smart recruit would be well advised to carefully consider a few important issues before signing up.

Chief Negotiators are very visible, often get conflicting directions, are frequently tasked to meet rapidly moving goals, are considered as the “Great Satan” by the union as they are likely the seller of unwelcome messages and rarely get the resources necessary to get the job done well.

That said, it’s an interesting, demanding and challenging opportunity to see how decisions are made and how problems are solved at sometimes high levels in an Agency. The job has risks and rewards. It requires substantial efforts to learn issues from many perspectives. Chief negotiators come out of the process having seen how an Agency works at the most fundamental levels. Learning technical legal, financial, administrative, and other subject matter areas is critical to success.

Most important, though, is what you will learn about yourself by serving as an Agency’s point at a bargaining table. Bargaining is mostly about the shaping of expectations whether your counterpart’s on the other side of the table or those of your own leadership. As a result, the process moves at a pace in direct proportion to the difference in expectations between the parties. People may suggest wide ranging bargaining schemes and styles to you and offer learned tomes to be read instructing you on how to achieve success at the table. No two negotiations are ever the same. The issues, the people, the goals, and a lot more change every time union and management bargain whether a contract, a memo of understanding, the impact of a change or anything else in dispute. While reading about bargaining can be helpful, experience is the only effective teacher.

Given all of the above, you can often rely on others to give you technical advice, research and tee up issues, and do the background preparation work that gets you ready to bargain. Only you, can decide what you’re going to do and say to move the process forward once you’re in the hot seat. The questions below may help you to determine whether you’re the right person to take the seat in the first place or, if you’re already selected, to consider approaches to the process. The following are in no particular order and don’t necessarily relate to one another in a logical way. But interactions between people are regularly illogical and may proceed in unpredictable ways. Each reflects a skill to be developed or a talent to be enhanced that will serve you well in negotiating.

Can You Spend an Entire Day Asking Questions and Only Asking Questions?

The ability or inability to answer questions will affect expectations over time. The harder the question to answer the lower the expectation of success by the responder becomes. The seller of a concept has to know they must have the answers to convince the customer of its value. Learn to ask hard questions and be persistent about seeking acceptable answers.

How Good are You at Silence?

If the ball is in the other guy’s court, don’t be too quick to get it back. If you’re owed an answer, learn to wait for it. Many people have difficulty dealing with silence and may reveal much in filling what is to them an unacceptable vacuum. Also wait past an answer to see what else may be forthcoming.

Is Patience a Virtue or an Issue for You?

The passage of time also can impact expectations. Waiting for a right moment to press an issue, make an argument, propose a solution or counter an offer is a practiced skill not a gift of birth.

Can You Follow a Plan?

If it’s your plan to relate a group of issues to each other, package a proposal or take a hard line on some issues and a soft response on others, develop a plan and implement it.

How Easily Does Your Button Get Pushed?

Learn your hot buttons. Work on internalizing the expression “It ain’t about you!” If you feel that familiar tingle in your gut or warm in the face or however you get when you’re getting upset, get out of the room and get control of yourself. Conversely, if you have a reason to demonstrate an emotion (usually outrage at the other person’s sheer audacity in making such silly demands) make sure it is carefully planned and staged. If you’re really ticked off, stay away from the table until you get over it. Remember, "it ain’t about you."

A few years ago I think I really upset a national union official by asking after he had put on a particularly spectacular tirade, “does that work?” I found it hard to believe someone of his experience and status would do what he did unplanned. He proceeded to continue raging using my question as fuel for his fire. Sadly, it was predictive of the apparent fact that he was a one trick pony and had no other plan or approach to use. I remember hoping for his sake that it was at least therapeutic for him as it had little or no effect on me or the bargaining.

Can You Spend a Month Setting Up a Deal?

I’m not talking so much about patience here as systematically laying the groundwork piece by piece to make a deal attractive at a point in time. Lots of issues get on the table at the same time. The ones you put there should each be a part of an orchestrated effort to advance a number of potential deals. You can’t be taught this, you gotta set it up based on your sense of timing, readiness, etc.

Can You Let Someone Else Do Your Talking for You?

There are issues and times when it’s better for you not to do the talking on an issue until you’re ready. That’s not to say the matter isn’t discussed but you’ve made a conscious decision to have a team member take the issue to a certain point before you weigh in. This works well in a number of situations but the one most cited is “good cop – bad cop”.

Can You Let a Member of Your Team Make a Mistake Without Correcting It?

There’s always time to fix an error. Interrupting a team member you’ve charged with carrying an issue may demonstrate lack of confidence to the other side of the table. There’s no commitment until you, as chief, make one so don’t be eager to react. there may be things to learn in your counterpart’s reaction or lack thereof.

Can You Suffer a Fool?

You will have virtually no control over who sits on the other side of the table. A good negotiator develops a behavior or two to use when confronted with a variety of difficult to stomach advocates for the other guy. If you are lucky, (and be sure to get religious and say prayers of thanksgiving if it happens) you’ll get a counterpart chief negotiator that’s a decent person to deal with. My favorite behavior when stuck with a fool or apparent mad dog, is to look at the person I know is more rational while the tirade from the idiot proceeds. If you never understood the idea of “coping behavior”, sitting first seat at a bargaining table will bring it home to you.

Do You Need to be Visibly in Control?

Management owns the cookie jar. The decision to dispense cookies puts the jar holder in charge in a very real way. The need to appear in control often signals a lack of confidence in your role. There’s no deal unless you sign it and unless you are willing to pay for it.

As you could tell early on, the above is not a technical system to advance negotiation but some thoughts on how to decide if you’re up to the effort or need to think about it some more. I believe and sincerely hope your Agency agrees hat you get paid to think and in bargaining perhaps outthink the other side of the table. I hope it helps.

As with all of these articles, the views stated above are mine and mine alone. A fact for which those who use my services are usually very grateful.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.