Think Like A Negotiator in Employee Engagement and Relations

Leadership Lessons for High Performance
September 14, 2015
Think Like A Negotiator in Employee Engagement & Relations (Part 2)
October 12, 2015

Recently I had the honor of being a breakout session speaker at the SHRM/PIHRA California HR Conference and the title of my talk was Think Like A Negotiator in Employee Engagement and Relations. How do you think like a negotiator when it comes to employee engagement and relations? Is there some detailed highly technical way to dissect and learn the magic negotiation formula to have success with engaging in the workplace? As I see it, not really. Sometimes people want to make it complicated and search for that deep hidden strategy that will be the answer.

As a military leader in the Contracting career field for many years, I learned that negotiation goes way beyond the scope of contracts and purchasing. Contracting for commodities, services or construction for wherever I was stationed was my primary job. Secondary to that was being a manager and leader. I was put into many leadership positions during my military career and learned the importance of managing and leading people effectively to be successful as a high performing team.   I used some of the same negotiation skills as a supervisor that I used as a negotiator. These strategies are universal but can be applied differently depending on the situation.

Here are three of the strategies I shared at the conference about how to be a success in employee engagement.

Everything is Negotiable – as a manager or supervisor, even if you are putting out the direction as the law of the land, having the flexibility to understand everything is negotiable will leave you open to new ideas that may bring about better productivity or a better solution to a problem or situation. For instance if you determine everyone has to work an hour of overtime everyday to finish the task, the employees should be able to negotiate how they do that; come in early, stay late, maybe someone can’t do it one day because of a family activity, could they do 2 hours another day? Being flexible (negotiable) as a leader will still make sure the job gets done but will also leave the employees feel like they can work around their personal situations while still supporting the job.

Own You Power – During my time in the military and afterwards I have experienced and witnessed many types of leaders and managers. Those who were weak and had no power got no respect and people would not follow their lead or were not quick to accomplish the tasks they were given. Often times things were late or left undone or not done in excellence and required rework. Lacking power with your employees will negatively affect the overall outcome of the work and make engagement more difficult because they won’t listen to you.

On the other hand, too much power comes across negatively as well. There are times to be assertive and times to be liaise faire but for the most part when employees recognize that you own your power in a professional manner, they will respond accordingly with respect and support. Those employees will have your back and engaging with them will be a breeze.

I had one leader who led by explosion. She screamed and yelled all the time. People just stayed away from her as much as they could and did the required job but didn’t do any more and were not committed as a team player. It affected the morale of the entire organization. When she finally left, it was like everyone could breathe again and a sense of relief was felt within the organization. Don’t misuse your power but be sure and own your power to garner the respect from the employees.

Build Relationships First – Is this really a negotiation strategy to use with employees? This is the most fundamental of principles in any kind of negotiation, but it’s the one people miss the most. It is the most important in employee engagement. I worked for one leader who did “management by walking around” as he called it. He would get out from behind his desk and connect with the people. People respected that. On the other hand I had another leader that could have cared less about anyone in the organization. People thought he was an idiot and that he didn’t care. No one had any respect for him.

Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics famous quote says:

Mary Kay

“Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying make me feel important.” If you get this down and make your focus as a leader people centered, you will not have to worry about finding some secret in the sock drawer hidden negotiation technique. People want to be understood and heard. They want to know you care about them, even if you don’t like them as people. If you are fair, build great relationships and make them feel important, they will work hard for you and be more cooperative when the hard tasks that require extra work come through. If you connect with them on a regular basis, you will know how to effectively engage with them in any situation.

When I was stationed in England (UK), I was put in charge of a group of diverse people; US Military, US and UK Civilians. The UK culture is different than the US culture and the military is different from the US Civilian culture. How could I make those few people work together as a well-oiled machine? We had a US Civilian that was rough around the edges and had just quit smoking, a UK civilian that wasn’t pulling her weight because she was having a lot of personal problems and everyone else was upset about it, a UK civilian that was an open male chauvinist (women belong in the kitchen – this guy worked for me, a woman!) and a US military member that had worked for me before and just arrived in the UK and me, a new leader that had just been made the manager of that group by the head of the Contracting Office.

How did I negotiate the employee engagement and relations in that situation? It didn’t happen overnight that’s for sure. I started by establishing my power as a leader and letting the “troops” know that their ideas were valid and important and if they saw a better way to do what we were doing to speak up and I would consider it (Own Your Power, Everything Is Negotiable).

I took the time to have individual meetings with each person and group meetings as well. We did regular offsite meetings at the local pub or restaurant for lunch and had a training for about 15-20 minutes but most of the time was spent just hanging out and getting to know each other. I made them feel important when I found out things about them personally and understood and worked with them when they needed time off for something or assistance. Those offsites and connections other than for work made us a tight knit group. We built connections and connection builds trust so we trusted each other and knew each other well.

I had to mark down the one employee on her performance and when I did she immediately came up to speed. The other employee who was chauvinistic was an outstanding worker and I rewarded him with a high performance report and put him in for an annual award, which he won. I had to work hard to not let personal feelings invade my leadership. I was friends with the one poor performing employee before becoming the manager and couldn’t let that sway my rating of her. I also couldn’t stand the other guy personally but he was a hard outstanding worker and deserved to be rated as such.

This wasn’t a one off thing. I was put in charge of more groups and had the same result because I built that connection with each person and that led to trust. If they stepped out of line, they knew they would get called on it. They knew where the boundaries were because I let them know up front through the relationship building process.

These 3 strategies are very simple but in employee engagement may not be so easy. In the end, it comes down to you and how you lead yourself in every situation in employee engagement. Being a good leader or being able to connect with employees and successfully negotiate in the workplace is more about how you lead yourself than any strategy or technique you apply to the employee. Self leadership first (Own Your Power), Let the employees know their ideas will be heard and considered (Everything Is Negotiable) and connect with the employees to build trust and let them know they are important (Build Relationships First).

While these strategies are not overly technical, they will work if you apply them in your engagement with employees and will build a solid foundation for a high performing organization.



Eldonna Lewis Fernandez
Eldonna Lewis Fernandez
Veteran negotiation and contracts expert Eldonna Lewis-Fernandez, author of “Think Like a Negotiator,” has over 30 years of experience crafting killer deals both stateside and internationally, many in excess of $100 million. She’s currently the CEO of Dynamic Vision International — a specialized consulting and training firm that helps individuals hone negotiation skills — as well as a nationally regarded keynote speaker, session leader and panelist on the Art of Negotiation. Eldonna may be reached online at

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