Why Negotiation Shouldn't Be a Zero-Sum Game: Understanding the Benefits

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Negotiation plays a crucial role in many areas of a finance leader's responsibilities — from interacting with vendors and suppliers to securing favorable credit terms, setting budgets, and even managing internal resources. Navigating these diverse situations requires effective negotiation skills, and it's these skills that set great leaders apart, allowing them to create value for their organization, build stronger relationships, and foster a culture of collaboration and mutual respect. 

But negotiating is hard, and many leaders think they’re not good at it. We often picture good negotiators as hard-lined and assertive (perhaps even aggressive), and leaders of all kinds either discount their ability to be effective at the negotiation table or come to the table as their “negotiation persona” rather than showing up as their authentic selves.

Truly effective negotiators focus less on winning and more on obtaining positive outcomes for everyone involved. They spend more time listening than talking, think outside the box, and approach conversations with empathy.

What it means for finance leaders to listen well

A great negotiator understands what each stakeholder is saying and, sometimes more importantly, what they are not saying. You have to listen intently, ask questions, and have enough knowledge of the business to read between the lines — focusing in on the motivations and concerns driving your cross-functional partners. To be effective, you need to hear and acknowledge the perspectives of others, build rapport, and ultimately find mutually beneficial solutions.

For instance, when a department head is hesitant about their numbers, dig in and understand the underlying motivations. Are they trying to preserve their team size? Are they aiming to increase their budget? Are they risk-averse leaders who prefer a more conservative financial approach? By understanding these motivations, you can work toward a solution that aligns with the needs of the individual and the company's overall goals.

To be effective, you have to consider the big picture

Business leaders are continually negotiating how resources — whether it's budget, manpower, or time — should be distributed among various departments and projects. Resource allocation is a balancing act. The sales department may push for more budget for customer acquisition, while the product team might simultaneously advocate for more research and development resources. As a finance leader, your role is to ensure that these resources are allocated in a way that aligns with the company's strategic goals and provides the highest return on investment.

To be effective at the negotiation table, you have to look at the bigger picture. Dig deep into the ask — considering factors like the potential return on investment, the strategic importance of each department or project, and the long-term implications of their decisions. 

For example, investing more in research and development might not yield immediate results, but it could lead to product enhancements that propel the company forward. On the other hand, allocating more resources to customer acquisition could lead to immediate revenue growth, but it might not be sustainable in the long run if the product doesn't keep up with market demands. Explain all the factors that went into your position. Great negotiators find creative solutions to complex problems and align people and teams around a singular goal. That means everyone agrees and understands how to move forward. You can’t do that if people feel that you’re imposing your individual will. Think big, and come to the table with a narrative they can get behind. 

The focus should never be on winning

Negotiation isn't simply about 'winning' or 'losing.' Instead, it’s an opportunity to create value and forge stronger relationships. Negotiation is not a zero-sum game, and taking a balanced approach cultivates trust, fosters collaboration, and often leads to more favorable outcomes for all parties involved.

The finance leader’s role as a negotiator is to drive net positive outcomes. In internal negotiations, the finance leader must be a thought partner with business leaders. This involves finding a balance between what different stakeholders want and what is financially feasible for the company. It's not just about cutting costs or increasing revenue. It’s about maintaining the company's financial health while still achieving strategic objectives.

Negotiation and the modern finance leader

To be proactive in negotiations, rather than reactive, a modern finance leader needs a keen understanding of market trends, a deep empathy for various stakeholders, and the agility to adapt negotiation strategies as needed. The negotiation table is where the magic happens — where conflicts are resolved, synergies are discovered, and the path to shared success is paved. The modern finance leader isn’t a part of the conversation, they’re leading it.

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