Competitor to Pleaser: Understanding Negotiating Personalities

When preparing for a negotiation - whether we're asking our boss for a raise, or selling our products or services to a client - we often work and rework the numbers and think endlessly about tactics and strategies. Of critical importance, but often overlooked, is the negotiating style of the individual with whom we'll be negotiating.

In today’s business world it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking we're negotiating with the ABC Company when the reality is we are negotiating with people. No matter how large and diverse the organization, it always comes down to this: a person or small group of people is going to make a decision.

The bad news is this situation makes it incumbent on us to reach agreement. The good news is there are some insights that can help, not the least of which is the ability to work with different negotiating styles. Every individual has a prominent negotiating style. Being able to determine theirs and knowing up-front what to expect can produce dramatic results. Most business people will fall into one of four categories: Competitor, Collaborator, Compromiser or Pleaser. As we cover each, try to identify your own style and the styles of those with whom you negotiate.

Competitors do well in tough negotiations when they need to negotiate with another highly competitive individual, and when faced with unpopular courses of action, such as enforcing restrictive rules or bringing price increases to a customer base.  The competing style does, however, have its downside. Off-the-chart competitors can be rigid and unyielding. They are often not finely tuned in to the needs of others and risk harming the relationship.

A classic example of the competitive style would be pre-Lithium Ted Turner.

According to Atlanta lore, his first marriage ended one Sunday late in 1961 in a sailboat race on Atlanta's Lake Allatoona. His wife, Judy, was leading the fleet on points when she found herself between Ted and the finish line. Turner worked his way to leeward of his wife and brought his boat up into the wind, actually hitting her and knocking her out of the race. It was all very legal but very dirty. By the end of the race, the marriage was over. That's the competitive style at its most detrimental. In fairness, we have to say, that same competitiveness, harnessed and focused, is what has made Ted Turner an incredible force in America's Cup history, an international leader in the broadcast industry and Time Magazines "Man of the Year.”

Collaborators can be wonderful negotiators. They merge insights from different perspectives on a problem and gain commitment by incorporating those perspectives into a consensual decision. The drawbacks are that not everything needs to be collaborated on. Collaboration takes time, energy, effort, and often money. People who can't shift out of this mode are the ones responsible for issues getting "hung up in committee" for weeks when decisions should take a short period of time. These people can drive you crazy.

Jimmy Carter comes to mind as an example of a collaborator. As a chief executive, this quality hurt him because he was slow to take action. On the other hand, Carter may be the best ex-President we've ever had because of these same qualities. His collaborative abilities make him the perfect peacekeeper he has become to the world.

Are you good at achieving temporary settlements to complex issues or arrive at workable solutions under time pressure? You may be a compromiser. Many middle managers in Corporate America are compromisers. This is also a great style to fall back on when the competitive style won't work. On the down side, compromisers can concentrate so heavily on the practicalities and tactics of compromise that they sometimes lose sight of larger issues, such as principles, values, and long-term objectives. Former President Bill Clinton is an excellent example of a compromiser. He is viewed by supporters as a master at finding common ground and viewed by critics as inconsistent, shifting with the tides when determining courses of action.

A common style found in business today is the pleaser. The pleaser's main attribute is the ability to be pleasant – to project niceness –to build relationships. It's their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. This style lends itself to situations in which a person will do whatever it takes to satisfy the other party needs. The pleaser is especially adept at preserving harmony and avoiding disruption in business situations.

The drawback, however, is that they can allow themselves to be abused. It's hard for classic pleasers to exert themselves in head-to-head negotiating situations, and as a result, they are often guilty of backing down or leaving company profits "on the table."

Every sales force has a number of Joe Pleasers. Joe has been with the company for several years, and has a solid client base. His customers love him, because he's great at solving problems and cultivating relationships. His repeat business is good, but when his accounts are analyzed, the profit margin is below where it should be. In closing situations, Joe gives up more than he needs to. The problem is compounded by the fact that he is often doing business with decision makers that fall into the Competitor style.

One clue to determining your style and the style of others is to look at what I call your stiffness index--how quickly you acquiesce, or bend-- in a negotiating situation.

  • Competitor - Stiff, unyielding, uncompromising. Very little give.
  • Collaborator - Willing to bend, but sticking up for what they believe at the same time. Willing to take the time, energy, and creativity to come up with a mutually acceptable solution.
  • Compromiser - Bending fairly easily. Quick to find common ground.
  • Pleaser - As a negotiator, you're on shaky ground here. You'll be regarded as a good guy, but have a tendency to give away too much.

Key Point: Far more important than your style is your flexibility; it's your ability to be flexible with the situation and react accordingly that determines your effectiveness as a negotiator. There are times throughout the day when each style might be appropriate. As you prepare for negotiating and evaluate your counterpart's style, or even when you have begun the process, ask, "Which style will serve me best in this situation?"

This question shapes your thinking over time. You'll find yourself shifting gears--adapting to situations and individuals--to achieve your goals. That flexibility is the mark of a truly good negotiator.