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  • Stefan Szepesi

Beyond Training

Negotiation is still trailing other fields but it can become a core competency in support of public service.



Training is the bread and butter of nearly all negotiation consultancies. It is as tangible as outside assistance can get. Also, it leaves the three main stakeholders pretty satisfied. HR departments in the public sector can report specific outputs as results (“50 staff trained”) and training companies benefit from a predictable stream of business. Predictable because the third and most important stakeholder group, the trainees, are on average excited about Negotiation 101. A well taught but off-the-shelve negotiation training is inspiring and fun for most participants.


So what is the impact of negotiation training over time? It is little known because no one measures. The best and more advanced training courses give some insights as trainees and trainers meet again to reflect after a period of applying new skills. But even this evidence is merely anecdotal. A lot of good negotiation books recommend training as the natural supplement to reading. But do the lessons and skills stick? Are they applied a month after the training? A year? Ten years? And if staff want to apply what they learned, does the organisation enable them to do so? Take negotiation preparation, for example. Any good trainer will create awareness around the (lack of) preparation that happens in practice and offer tools to trainees to, at the very least, get this part right. But preparation takes time and requires internal coordination. Do managers support this? Or better: do they require it? And in their own set of pre-negotiation briefings, how often do they require an analysis that is written not from the substance point of view, but through the lens of a negotiator?


It is often said that far more learning takes place on the job than in the class room. Although the most often-cited figures around this (“75% experiential; only 5% from lectures”) appear to be scientific hogwash there is no doubt that people learn tremendously on the job. The fascinating aspect of negotiation is that the incentives within the organisation are usually stacked squarely against sharing those lessons with colleagues. The tough question is therefore: if organisation-wide learning does not happen, how impactful can training individuals really be on overall performance?


In fields such as evaluation, project design and procurement, public sector agencies and NGOs work according to specific templates and instructions. They use technical jargon and (international) standards. Performance is at least partially measured on professionally applying known methods. Staff specialised in these fields follow specialised training courses; often, organisations have a cadre of internal trainers or mentors responsible for inducting new colleagues in the field.


Negotiation is miles from this for many reasons that go beyond this blog.


So what can be done to cover some of this distance? Very few resources on negotiations have delved into this. This negotiation book by Movius and Susskind and this piece by Borbély and Caputo are among the exceptions. Of course they cite support from top-level leadership ("sponsors") to turn negotiation into a core organisational competence as a key factor to succes. If you are an HR manager sold on the value of negotiation competency, then having bosses that are equally eager is the very best world to be in. But in practice, good ideas often have to trickle up.


From my own experience, and borrowing from the above authors, here are nine concrete type of actions:

1. Assess Negotiation Performance

Conduct a negotiation scan of the organisation to find out what the biggest challenges are for staff on the negotiation 'front lines' and where the largest knowledge and skills gaps exist.


2. Develop In-House Case Studies

Start with a relatively successful negotiation a division of the organisation has been involved in. Discuss and share the lessons, and use the case for training other staff. Subsequently, develop a case around a process that was considered far less successful.


3. Mainstream Conversation

Popularise the topic. Beyond training, organise public lectures, panels, games or light weight social applications that pique people's interest in the theme.


4. Identify champions

Beyond the HR or training department, identify staff that feel very affiliated with the theme, want to become more specialised and are ambassadors to colleagues.


5. Peer-to-peer coaching and support

Following from four, think about ways, formal or informal, in which peer-to-peer sharing of best practices can be stimulated.


6. Commit to approach and success criteria

The Harvard school of principled negotiation is the fundament for agreements for the greater good. It applies irrespective of the negotiation substance or forum, and its straightforward basis of principles can be supplemented by a wide range of insights relevant for whichever public mission one has. One can give it a different name and adjust the lingo to organisational language and culture. What chiefly matters is organisation-wide consensus on the basic principles and methods that are used. Success criteria (what is a good negotiation outcome?) follow easily from here.


7. Adjust procedures

Organisational infrastructure can be in the way of applying effective negotiation strategy. A scan should help identify these but top-level support is often required to make adjustments.

8. Match performance incentives

If negotiation is or is to become a core competence, job descriptions and staff assessments should take this into account.


9. Invest in learning platforms beyond in-class training

Internal platforms can be a fun and a light way to keep negotiation fundamentals on people's agenda in their daily work. This can range from fully-fledge applications that help staff analyse external negotiation processes they are in, and access evaluations and case studies of past talks, to peer-to-peer support platforms in which successes and failures are safely shared.