Roger Harrison was one of the founders of the professional discipline known as Organizational Development (OD). In the 1970s, he described a rather novel and tough-minded approach to team development. This was a bit of a departure from the then-vogue tender-minded approaches that assumed conflict and power struggles were symptoms of underlying leadership or structural problems. This article is a reprise and update of his original description of this Role Negotiation technique.
The paradigms of OD (e.g., sensitivity training) have shifted since that era, but vestiges of the early approaches can still be seen in many organizational development and team building efforts such as job enrichment, trust-building, open sharing of feelings, re-focusing on the intrinsic rewards of the work, etc. Of course all of these techniques can be used to positive effect at times. But a leader or consultant who minimizes competitiveness and power struggles natural to all organizations does so at his or her peril. These are facts of organizational life and often must be addressed directly before there will be real progress.
Consider the following scenarios.
- A CFO is concerned that her team is always just barely on time with the quarterly figures from the field divisions. This game of brinksmanship is creating a vicious circle of tightening controls, earlier deadlines, closer supervision, passive resistance and tension throughout the quarter.
- There is ongoing conflict between the Chief Marketing Officer and the VP of Sales. Many people have to be involved in the complex work of the organization and the various product managers have competing demands for their time and attention. From the sales perspective, there are too many handoff points where things can go wrong in the matrix and too many people to call when a customer has an issue. But marketing sees the sales people as prima donnas who don’t understand or appreciate the complexity of the process.
- The head of production and the engineering manager in a manufacturing company are too often at odds. Engineering feels that production doesn’t give enough time for changes and for new demands that should be easily forecasted. Production feels that engineering doesn’t have an appreciation for real-time schedules and equipment constraints, and that they tend to design in a vacuum.
These familiar examples illustrate the problems of power and influence that arise naturally when one person or group tries to affect the activities of another. In each case, the objective of one or both parties is to gain more control over the other or to reduce the control exercised by the other – or both. A well-intentioned leader or consultant may make the case that these situations are due to miscommunication, unclear goals, problems with trust or other similar causes. But in all such cases, both parties see the situation as one of influence and power – who will be the boss and have the final say.
The process of role negotiation as originally described by Harrison may be of value in these and many similar cases. It is a real-world oriented technique that can lead to a workable solution in cases involving competition, coercion and power struggles. It builds on the nature of the current situation rather than getting everyone to strive for an ideal. Of course, the ideal would be better and a perfect world would be nice, but this process helps all parties play their current hands most effectively. It provides a method for one person or group to negotiate and structure the role, or working arrangements, with respect to the other. It may include the nature of the activities expected of the other, the reporting relationships, rules for escalation, who is responsible for what decisions, who will carry them out (and according to what criteria), what are the consequences for non-performance, etc. This process can be used in most any situation involving competition, power, control and influence. It is appropriate for dyads and for large functional groups, including separate companies.
Role negotiation makes the fundamental assumption that reasonable people prefer a state of negotiated settlement to one of ongoing unresolved conflict. Most people are quite willing to invest the appropriate time in an activity that will result in a more stable and predictable situation. And they are typically open to concessions to achieve such a state. For the process to work, people must be willing to discuss the situation openly and take a few risks to describe their hoped-for outcome. This means talking about the changes in behavior, responsibility or authority they want and the things they’re willing to give up or change to get there.
The Front End
In Harrison’s original article, he described a role negotiation process involving a consultant facilitating a session of five to seven people, including a manger and his subordinates. The consultant, whether external or part of an internal team, must have the trust of the participants. They must feel that he or she will be objective, fair and competent. People must be willing to make the effort and have the confidence that there can be a better outcome than the present situation.
One full day, away from the office, is usually necessary to get the focus and attention of most groups. A two-day session with a commitment to follow-up in a week or so is ideal. In cases where the groups or individuals are overly wary or competitive, extra time for ice-breaking, mutual understanding and trust-building may be necessary before getting into the real work of productive confrontation and negotiation.
Developing the Contract
This crucial step sets the stage for everything that will happen in the change process. Several iterations may be needed before a final version of the contract is agreed upon. The ideal end result will be a written agreement that will guide the behavior of all parties, provide a way to handle disputes and outline sanctions for not following the contract. The basics are as follows:
- While feelings and emotions are likely to exert a powerful influence on the thoughts and behaviors of the participants, the facilitator will not ask, probe or press anyone about how he or she is feeling. The process is focused on developing an agreement about the way people will work together. Feelings about the process or about the other people involved are private. Participants may choose to talk about how they feel, but that’s their business. Feelings are not part of the contract.
- Participants are expected to be open and honest in their discussions about behavior. Concrete examples will be necessary for illustration. Each person must be able to openly, accurately and specifically describe the things he or she wants the others to do more of, do better, do less of, stop doing and continue doing unchanged.
- All demands and requests for behavioral change must be written down to ensure there is an accurate and full understanding by both the sender and receiver. This is an essential step before any change process will begin.
- Although full and accurate descriptions of behavioral change are necessary, they do not constitute the change process itself. These descriptions provide the raw material for the discussions and negotiations that will eventually lead to the contract. When a behavioral change request is made, the facilitator will always ask for a quid pro quo – what the person is willing to give or change in order to get what he or she wants. Harrison noted at this point that if the discussion is between boss and subordinates, and if the boss can get what he wants simply by clarifying expectations from his position of authority or can issue orders, he probably doesn’t need a facilitator or change process.
- The change process now becomes one of negotiation and bargaining by which participants agree to change behavior in return for some desired change on the part of the other(s). But the process is not complete until the agreement is written down in terms that all participants understand. It will make explicit the expectations and describe clearly what each participant must do in return.
- Since this is an exercise in clarifying power, influence and behavior, threats and pressure may be employed by one or all parties. However, participants should be reminded clearly that such tactics often result in an increase in defensiveness, passive resistance, guarded communications and retaliation. At worst, they may result in a breakdown of the process, so the facilitator needs to keep the focus on positive incentives and reinforcements to whatever extent possible.
A real advantage or Role Negotiation is that is makes things explicit. During the contracting process, the facilitator helps everyone understand that each participant has some degree of power, from the positive, rewarding good behavior in others to the negative, resisting and punishing others for behavior not in agreement with the contract. By clarifying and defining expectations, participants don’t have to guess what the others want. They understand the relationship with greater certainty than would be the case if things were still covert or underground. With this process, people better understand how to influence others in the group.
Diagnosing the Issues
In this stage of the process, participants analyze the way they currently interact with others in the group and start to define the changes they’d like to see. The focus is purely selfish at this point – what would make him or her more effective? What would he or she change if possible? These are the raw data points for discussion and negotiation. After a short period of reflection, the participant fills out an issue diagnosis form (see Figure 1) on each other person. The messages should clarify what each sender needs from the others to help him or her perform more effectively on the job. The messages will be a list of things he or she would like for the other person:
1. To do more of or do better.
2. To do less of or stop doing.
3. To keep doing unchanged.
After the lists are completed, they are shared with the others. Each person records a summary and compilation of all the messages received from others – a list of the behavioral changes desired. The lists are posted on a flip chart for all to see. Each recipient is allowed to ask for clarification – the what/why/how. But nobody is allowed to defend, rebut or explain his or her reasons for current behavior. This is a time for clarification only. There is no argument, negotiation, discussion or decision-making at this stage.
There are likely to be increased amounts of anger, anxiety and natural hostility at this point, so the facilitator must control the discussion rather tightly now to prevent escalation and minimize threat and defensiveness. The procedure here is necessarily slow and deliberate to help channel the natural arousal and energy towards a positive outcome rather than leading to more conflict. Issues are being confronted, but in such a way as to maximize the chances for a collaborative and workable outcome.
After each person has clarified the messages he or she has received, issues are selected for negotiation. Here, the facilitator re-emphasizes that unless there is a quid-pro-quo, there is no point in proceeding with the discussion on any particular item. That is, everyone must be prepared to make some sort of change to get what he or she wants. If behavior doesn’t change on both sides, the status quo will prevail. By an iterative process, each person selects and communicates his or her most important issues and eventually the group comes to a consensus about which ones will be dealt with at this point. This defines the most negotiable issues – the ones with the appropriate combination of high desire for change on the part of the initiation and willingness to discuss it on the part of the person who is the target of the request.
The negotiation process is one of making contingent offers to one another in the form of “If you do ABC, I’ll do XYZ.” At this point participants may respond in the following ways:
- “OK, that makes sense. I can do that” (assuming the request is not too difficult and appears to be of clear benefit).
- “I can’t do that because…” (when the request is in conflict with his or her values, seems unethical, requires something that is too dangerous politically, etc.).
- “I will be willing to do that if you can help me out with this request…” (in the case where there may be a long term pay back for meeting the request).
When all parties are satisfied that an appropriate agreement has been reached, the participants write down the agreement to formalize it as a behavioral contract. It states what each participant will give and receive, and will include sanctions for noncompliance. The consequences for a broken contract may simply be a reversion to the status quo but they may also include other pressures, escalations and penalties.
Several negotiations may take place simultaneously, depending on the number of people or groups involved. All agreements are published for everyone to see and are discussed openly in the group (public commitment increases the chances for compliance). Where there is an impasse, the facilitator and other participants may kibbutz and suggest the imposition of further positive or negative consequences of failing to reach an agreement, or to abide by one. Of course there is always the possibility that one or more people may negotiate in bad faith. Also, most political landscapes are complicated to the point that simple solutions are difficult and such a direct approach could make the conflict worse. The facilitator must be skilled enough to realize that some things can’t be changed by these techniques and will avoid pushing the group into unproductive or politically dangerous territory. A positive outcome from an initial intervention is a path to better communication and teamwork. It should provide new insights and a successful experience in creating a better working environment.
Here are a few things to consider when negotiating and developing the behavioral contracts:
- If you try to manipulate or use tactics that seem underhanded, it will backfire. Remember, reputations are built over time and are difficult to overcome, so you want to invest in the creation of a good one. This is a chance to do that. This is a sample of your behavior in potentially adverse situations that others can see and by which they will judge you. Play it straight and don’t give anyone a reason to be suspicious. This is a chance to build long term relationships and trust.
- Be sure your requests are clear, appropriate and achievable. The better the definition of the task, the more likely it will happen. Avoid generalities like “be more efficient” or “get along better.” The request should be specific and measurable.
- Don’t try to win every point. Remember, this is called a negotiation, not a competition. Everyone needs to feel that he or she is getting something as well as giving something up. If you seem to come out on top constantly, you will breed resentment and passive resistance.
- It takes time to come up with clear, specific, measurable and actionable requests. People aren’t used to making their expectations explicit and discussing their working relationships in such direct terms. Allow time for the process to work.
Participants will need to live with the agreements for a while to see how well they work in the real world before trying to push things farther. An appropriate follow-up format would allow people to get back together and discuss what worked and what didn’t work. At that point, they can tweak, abandon, re-negotiate or reinforce the contracts. With repeated exposures to the process, especially if there are a few early wins, the group becomes more comfortable dealing with the conflict, perceived dangers, threats and touchy issues inherent in any process of change involving influence, power and competition. As participants get used to the process of role negotiation, the directive role of the facilitator diminishes and can be assumed by the group.
Dynamics of Role Negotiation
This process focuses on the working relationships between people, not their feelings about one another. As such, it is less threatening to most groups and more accessible than other techniques that place greater emphasis on interpersonal dynamics. People tend to be more at home discussing issues of power and influence on the job, rather than those involving feeling and emotion. Although people must make explicit the issues and observations that previously have been covert or underground, the level of skill facilitating a process of behavioral negotiation is not as crucial as that required for helping people deal with the more sensitive issues of interpersonal dynamics, feelings and emotions. Of course, the threat level is often significant when people are faced with a demand to change their behavior and to confront others in a discussion of what they need from them to be most successful on the job. Therefore, it still takes a significant level of confidence and trust in the facilitator. If it were easy, these matters would have been dealt with more directly before now.
People may resist writing down the changes they would like to see from others. There is often an extra level of threat perceived in putting one’s commitments to change on paper. However, there is a great deal of solid psychological research demonstrating that people are more likely to keep their commitments if they write them down and declare them in public. If there is too much resistance, the facilitator may let participants off the hook to a degree by not having them write down all the issues of concern, but only those they agree to work on at this time.
Any process of change implies loss, so we are naturally inclined to resist it. Nobody wants to lose power, influence or control. Role negotiation addresses these issues directly and helps identify opportunities for mutual advantage. These opportunities may be considerably greater than we realize or expect. As participants learn to influence things for the better and still achieve personal gain by channeling their competitive energies more effectively, they become more adept at an open process of behavioral negotiation. Their skill sets are broadened because they now have other tools to get their needs met rather than having to rely exclusively on covert, potentially destructive methods.
- Role negotiation deals with working relationships – what people do on the job and how that helps or hinders others. It doesn’t probe into feelings or emotions towards others.
- It deals directly with issues of power and authority – issues that are sometimes ignored by other team building approaches. Although it doesn’t seek to undermine legitimate authority, it does help people explore the sources of power available to them.
- It is oriented towards action and achieving commitment to realistic change, not just uncovering and understanding of issues.
- The procedures are clear and simple, and can be outlined to participants beforehand to minimize the threat and uncertainty of many team development techniques. Participants realize they have power and are not overly reliant on the skill of the facilitator.
- Role negotiation is an economical process that can be facilitated by internal consultants and team leaders, not exclusively by outside consultants. It does not rely on extensive training or special credentials.
- It may only function as a stopgap to help people live with potentially toxic relationship issues. But even so, it is a way to make life more bearable in a bad situation.
- It does not necessarily replace more complex interpersonal and organizational development processes that help build trusting relationships over time, but it is a great first step and in many cases may be a highly effective team development technique by itself.
- People don’t have to like one another for this to work. But they often develop more positive feelings towards one another when dealing from a position of clarity and when they know what to expect. We perform better in consistent, reasonably predictable environments. Role Negotiation helps clarify the organizational landscape.
Figure 1. Issue Diagnosis Format
(From Role Negotiation by Roger Harrison)
Message From: John Smith
If you were to do the following things more often or more effectively, it would help me to be more effective in my job:
If you were to do less of the following things, or were to stop doing them, it would help me do my job more effectively:
These things you have been doing help me to be more effective in my job. Please continue to do them.
|Do More or Better||Do Less or Stop||Keep Doing Unchanged|
|Give complete information on project process, to include slippage and completion ETA.
|Let people pursue other opportunities – stop hanging on to your best engineers.
— Paul, Amy, Sandy
|Training operators on preventive maintenance.
|Send progress reports on the ABC venture.
— James, Fred
|Missing weekly planning meetings.
|Offering good suggestions and insights in meetings.
— Sandy, Paul, Fred
|Make engineers more readily available when we need help.
— Paul, Sandy
|Ignoring cost control memos and reports.
— Fred, James
|Asking the tough, difficult or awkward questions.
|Stay better informed on things that don’t affect you immediately.
— Amy, James, Fred
|Putting off or setting aside my priorities for engineering attention.
— James, Sandy, Paul
|Offering help on design problems.
— Amy, James
|Enforce safety compliance on engineers when they’re on the shop floor.
— Sandy, James
|Charging time on the XYZ project to other accounts.
— Paul, James
|Keep up the good quality work on all projects.
— Fred, Sandy
|Push harder on the XYZ project.
— Paul, James
|Over-running project budget without discussing beforehand.
— Fred, James
He is a licensed psychologist and board certified in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. He is the author of many articles and papers, including the book Influence for Impact.