Negotiation for Engineers

Dec 15, 2010

by Peter Cheimets, Joshua Gordon, and James Tull

Most meaningful modern technical problems are beyond the reach of a single individual to solve. They require teams of individuals, sometimes large, geographically diverse teams, with distinct areas of expertise, to work together over long periods of time.

Though engineers may prefer working alone, a significant quantity of a team’s work takes place in a group. The impact that each team member has in these group settings, and therefore on the member’s own career, has as much to do with how one interacts within the team as it does with one’s technical skills. Thus, to be successful, an engineer must be comfortable in this highly interpersonal environment. And to advance, the engineer needs to excel in it.

When the outcome of an exchange has as much to do with the personalities involved as with the information presented, that exchange is a negotiation. The team environment is a serial set of negotiations, each the most difficult kind to carry out successfully and engineers must often work in team settings. Thus, beyond the skills that are necessary to excel as technical contributors, engineers need the skills of negotiators. A course that the authors have developed teaches engineers how to acquire just that. We call the course "Technical Negotiation."

The course makes two advances over other courses: the practical examples are specific to engineering, and the focus is on the difficult problem of balancing long-term relationships while achieving a desired goal.

So what are the skills that an engineer needs to master to become an effective negotiator? The authors’ course trains each engineer to approach and carry out an interaction by using the following steps:

  • Explore the goals and objectives of all parties;
  • Understand your own interests and positions, and those of the parties to the negotiation;
  • Create multiple options, evaluate them, and select the one with the highest overall value;
  • Balance the skill of advocacy with the skill of inquiry to improve both the effectiveness of communication and the likelihood of maintaining long-term relationships;
  • Understand the best walk-away alternatives to any negotiated outcome, and how those alternatives compare to the options under discussion.

This last skill comes the closest to what most people think of when they hear the term "negotiation," and may seem a little out of place in a technical setting. But standing your ground, and learning how to do so without damaging your relationships, is key to achieving the confidence to negotiate effectively in the first place.

A successful negotiation maintains relationships by ensuring that all parties to the negotiation feel included in the process. As a result, the team is more invested in the result as well. This helps team morale, which in turn, helps the employer.

These heady new skills come with a single downside. Once you realize what you can achieve through negotiation, you are under some obligation to try to effect the changes you believe are necessary. But this, of course, is the kind of problem engineers like.

[Adapted from "Technical Negotiation," by Peter Cheimets, Joshua Gordon, and James Tull, for Mechanical Engineering, August 2009.]

When the outcome of an exchange has as much to do with the personalities involved as with the information presented, that exchange is a negotiation.