Applying BATNAs to Workplace Relationship Conflict

by Gordon White, the conflictjourney.com

Think of your BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement) as your plan B. If everything you try through working on a troubling relationship doesn’t bear fruit, where will you turn, what will you do? Your answer to these questions is your BATNA. Having a BATNA means thinking ahead, and it often means doing some research. The more carefully you plan this alternative course of action the more powerfully your BATNA will serve you.

The notion of BATNA was conceived at the Harvard Negotiation Project and was popularized in the book Getting to Yes. The idea was advanced as a replacement for a ‘bottom line,’ which is the least you will accept in negotiation or the most you are willing to offer. BATNA on the other hand is your best way to satisfy the same interests you seek in negotiation, but to satisfy them outside the negotiation.

BATNAs are important to negotiation and relationship conflict alike because developing your BATNA is a potent means of both increasing your power and gaining greater psychological comfort. The concept is usually used in negotiations over concrete issues such as a corporate contract, where the BATNA for each party is likely to be the informed and realistic estimate of a court settlement, but BATNAs can also be usefully applied to workplace relationship conflict. In fact, considering your BATNA in any conflict is a useful exercise.

Let’s look at some examples of BATNAs for a workplace conflict. I categorize BATNAs into three types:

1) Another of the same thing

In the case of a troublesome working relationship, your BATNA could be the possibility of transfer to another position in the organization away from the challenging individual. Your BATNA is another role in the organization.

2) A different process

You may be able to file a grievance or another kind of official complaint and allow this process to deal with your concerns. Or, you could request mediation or seek support from someone higher in the organizational hierarchy. In all cases, you are looking to a process beyond your immediate one-on-one interactions with the other individual.

3) A walk away option

This would mean leaving your workplace entirely. In this type of BATNA, you abandon the whole situation in order to gain relief from the part of it that is creating uncomfortable conflict for you.

How exactly does a BATNA work for you in a troublesome working relationship?

Your conversations with the other party about challenges in your working relationship are your negotiation. If this negotiation does not proceed well, you begin to compare it to your BATNA. If the BATNA looks better, you can elect to act on it.

If you don’t have a BATNA, you might give up on the negotiation because it is uncomfortable – but then what? Having a BATNA allows you to leave the negotiation and not walk into the future blind or worse off.

In order to take full advantage of the BATNA, you have to take some time to develop it. This means soberly reviewing the situation and deciding upon your preferred course of action if you can’t negotiate a better working arrangement. You must also walk through what it would realistically look like to take this course of action. Frequently these considerations require some research on your part. For example, filing a bullying complaint may seem most appealing, but until you fully understand the nature of the investigation that follows and its consequences as well as limitations, you don’t really have a BATNA.

In relation to the BATNA there are several ways in which mediators see parties repeatedly deviate from best practices for addressing workplace conflict. The first is simply not developing a BATNA. The tendency is to work at the relationship, then look for another course of action when the relationship becomes intolerable.

Instead, I recommend the following: Once a relationship becomes problematic, develop your BATNA. Most of the time these considerations will feel a bit premature, but if you sort out what you will do in a worst-case scenario, you will be more empowered in your interactions and negotiation with the other party.

Here is the second error I see. Particularly in workplace conflict, parties tend to think their BATNA is better than it is. Whether it is assuming a boss will see it more your way, or believing an arbitrator will make a finding, we tend to be unrealistically positive about how officialdom will view our perspective.

One possible cause for viewing alternatives as better than they are is the natural wish to be optimistic. Certainly various cognitive biases contribute. For numerous reasons we interpret our observations in a manner that is more favorable to ourselves. For example, when asked to value property or goods, we will assign a higher value if we are a prospective seller and a lower value if we are prospective purchaser, even when genuinely attempting to be objective.

So, don’t forget, you will have a tendency to predict a more positive outcome than is likely when you hand over your situation to an official process. The upshot of my discourse is threefold. When you want to make progress with a troubling workplace relationship:

  1. Develop a BATNA, being aware that you will likely view it as better than it actually is;
  2. Put more effort into improving the relationship;
  3. Having worked at 1) and 2), if sober evaluation leads you to conclude that all things considered your BATNA will be better than the current state of the relationship, then execute your BATNA.

Gordon White

Principal of Gordon White Consulting

Gordon White is the principal of Gordon White Consulting in Victoria, B.C. He is a mediator and organizational development consultant who offers team development programs and negotiation training. He also teaches a course in Conflict Analysis and Management at Royal Roads University. Gordon is currently creating an online conflict management course for large organizations. He blogs regularly at theconflictjourney.com. You can follow him on Twitter @valueconflict, and reach him at gcwhite@telus.net or (250) 389-6231.

Readers are cautioned not to rely upon this article as legal advice nor as an exhaustive discussion of the topic or case.  For any particular legal problem, seek advice directly from your lawyer or in-house counsel.  All dates, contact information and website addresses were current at the time of original publication.