The Project Manager as Negotiator


Project managers are negotiators.  They negotiate for resources.  They negotiate for budget increases. They negotiate to move team members from one project to another, and negotiate with end-users when the outcome of the project is not exactly what the end-user expected. Indeed most of the time they never realize that they are negotiating.  Yet they often engage in the give-and take process to get more of what they need and give away as little as possible.

Not only do many fail to realize that they are frequently engaged in a negotiation process, but most of the time, according to Lax and Sebenus (The Manager as Negotiator, The Free Press, 1986) the “negotiation process is misunderstood and badly carried out.”

Most everyone is familiar with the role that negotiation plays when leases are signed, toxic waste sites are chosen, corporate mergers are discussed, and salaries for movie stars and sports figure are determined.  However a very similar process is appropriate when differences occur as projects move from initiation to closure. And similar processes are appropriate when project managers have to deal with the project management office, with team members, with customers and with end users.

Often the negotiation process is misunderstood in project management.  Its purpose is not to create an environment where one side dominates the other. Its purpose is not to provide the skills to maintain “high-control” in situations where differences among stakeholders need to be resolved.

Rather, the purpose of these skills is to help project mangers resolve conflicts in such a way that both sides are comfortable with the outcome. It is therefore a process of collaboration that helps to create high-performance team focused on achieving the business objectives of the project.


Consider also, that without training, the project negotiation process is often badly carried out. That is because project managers may succumb to those natural instincts that lead to unproductive behavior and do nothing to improve project outcomes. Here is an example.

A project manager for the implementation of a software upgrade to a supply chain management system was upset when the software vendor began to test the upgrade.  What the project manager discovered was that the vendor had failed to deliver the level of customization that was expressed in the contract.  A meeting was called. At that meeting the vendor insisted that the software did in fact meet all of the requirements of the contract. The project manager became aggressive demanding the system be changed. He insisted that the end-users would strongly resist the new upgrade because it that would force them to change their work processes. The vendor held his ground and would not give in, but proposed that additional customization could be done.  There would however be a charge for additional work.  The conflict continued to escalate and meeting ended.

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There are several issues here, but let’s look at just one of them. The project manager needed  to recognize that a solution to this conflict needed to be negotiated and that an acceptable solution would be necessary for both sides if the long term relationship between these parties was to be protected.
Had the project manager been able to step back and observe this cycle of aggression action and defensive behavior, and had he be able to recognized that this type of behavior often occurs in conflicts, he could have used one of the basic skills of negotiation which is to end the meeting and schedule another at a later time.  In this way the emotion of the moment could be defused and the parties get together at a later time when more civil behavior would prevail.

While this first step makes sense and while most people are aware of the benefits of disengagement when emotions run high. It is a very difficult step to take. Neither side wants to suggest it because it may be interpreted as weakness. But, to the contrary, it shows strength and provides some element of control to the party suggesting a moratorium.

So, for many people taking a break from an emotional situation and using that break to collect their thoughts is not a natural action. They need to practice this skill to become a better negotiator.

And there are countless other skills that can be practiced, but the point here is that the project manager is often at the center of challenges and differences, and that a significant part of their job is devoted to negotiating difference. Indeed, the project manager is a negotiator

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