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Winner or Loser? Negotiations Are Not a Zero Sum Game

Do you, like me, not look forward to your performance review and the ensuing discussion about pay?

A new study says that the very word, negotiations, isn't even real.

According to, employees and the organizations in which they are embedded are complex human beings and entities. "But when it comes to things like hiring, negotiations and fostering creativity, there is often a tendency to reject such complexity and see things as “either-or” or “winner vs. losers”. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, Maryland Smith’s Rellie Derfler-Rozin, says at the website.

That line of thinking is known as the zero-sum mindset. An all-or-nothing mentality that, Derfler-Rozin says, can adversely affect organizations at every level.

“We all have those myths about how things work in the world. In our thinking, we can sometimes oversimplify and that is manifested in this zero-sum mindset, that it's an either/or deal,” newswise quotes Derfler-Rozin, associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “The first step toward correction is being aware of this tendency and how it may lead to a lot of errors and biases. We have to try to embrace complexity rather than regard everything as either ‘this or that.’”

What’s crucial to success in negotiations, she says, is for both parties to shy away from the idea that if one side is getting more, the other must be coming out worse for wear – especially when it’s time to talk salary.

“It’s easy to fall into the zero-sum mindset during salary negotiations because it’s easy to quantify salary in comparison to less-easily quantifiable factors like work-life balance, growth opportunities and telecommuting,” notes Derfler-Rozin. “Focusing on salary alone, by definition, makes the negotiation a 'fixed pie' in which, when one party gains, the other party loses. Trading on other factors can help people on both sides appear more sincere and flexible. It shows an understanding of constraints while offering value creation in other ways.”

A zero-sum mindset also carries weight in terms of an employer’s perception of a worker’s motivation, Derfler-Rozin continues. "Her previous research on the topic conveyed that hiring managers perceived job candidates who show interest in both task (intrinsic motivation) and external relevant factors such as perks, benefits, flexibility (extrinsic motivation) to be less interested in the job itself compared to those who showed pure interest in the task itself," newswise reports.

It’s a short-sighted approach, she says, that can cost employers a chance to hire the best candidates or increase diversity within the workforce.

One place to start, Derfler-Rozin says, is by hiring managers that not only are ethical but also actively signal and practice good moral behavior. These leaders can help employees who care about ethics to maintain an ethical environment while still showing creativity, she says.

“Ethical leadership is always important for organizations, but this is an added value that allows for creative thinkers who care about ethics to thrive,” says Derfler-Rozin. “Having someone to uphold ethical standards relieves this burden from employees so that they can feel comfortable and express their creativity.”

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