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Many business leaders are good at contracting and negotiating. Negotiating is how we close customers, manage vendors and hire/release employees; it’s how we establish and maintain our relationships with third parties; it’s how we conduct business.

But as a species, business leaders could be a lot better at the emotional contracting we rely on much more frequently – with employees, superiors and peers – to move the project forward, file the quarterly report or just get through the day. Negotiating emotional agreements smoothly is a critical leadership skill for increasing productivity and reducing emotional angst in the workplace so it contributes to employee satisfaction, innovation and all the other good stuff we like to see at the office. It’s also very handy for managing that business partner once the legal process is complete and in that sense probably helps reduce overall legal fees!

So here’s a little free eCoaching to help you manage those difficult relationships at work – and hopefully it will help you keep your legal fees under control;)

Emotional Contracts Precede Paper Ones

We like to pretend sometimes that emotions have no place at the office, or that it’s “not our job” to worry about the emotional well being of our employees. (I once heard a manager say about a challenging employee, “That’s his therapist’s job, not mine!”)

But here’s the deal, if you have to deal with them, then you need to take responsibility for at least half of the emotions involved in your interaction – your half. And if your relationship – with a boss, employee, peer, customer, partner, vendor – isn’t going smoothly, or you want it to, you’re going to make more progress faster if you tackle the emotional contract before diving into the legal one.

Emotional Contracting 101

The good news is that emotional contracting isn’t that tough, especially if you’re used to negotiating business agreements. It’s the exact same skill set, just focused on internal contract terms instead of those you’ll find external – on paper.

One difference that matters, though, is that unlike business negotiations that start with an agreement to explore common ground, most emotional contracts aren’t written down, discussed or even surfaced, so don’t expect to find the place to start anywhere else but inside you and in the behaviors you and the other person exhibit when in each other’s presence. This means most emotional contracts need to be reverse engineered before they can be renegotiated. Here’s a quick guide to reverse engineering your emotional agreement with someone.

Jot yourself some notes about your relationship:

  • What have I agreed to do and what do I expect in return?
  • What do I think they agreed to do and what do they expect in return?
  • Where am I not living up to this agreement?
  • Where are they not living up to this agreement?
  • What’s the gap and what’s the “emotional price” of the gap? (I.E., what problem does the gap create? It can come in hard business terms like disappointment in shoddy deliverables, emotional issues like feeling betrayed and everything in between.)

Piece of cake, right? Ok. Well, with some people it’s really tough, especially when there’s a lot of anger involved. But go ahead and go through the steps above to help dispel the anger and clarify for yourself why the emotions are there in the first place. A good leader understands and negotiates the emotional contracts around herself constantly.

Here’s what it looks like in action when a boss feels an employee isn’t responsive enough and too error prone.

Susan the VP of Customer Service asks Carol the Account Rep for a write-up on a customer complaint before calling the customer back after a scathing complaint email. Susan is upset when Carol doesn’t provide the write up until 5:30pm and it’s incomplete. Susan has to put off calling the customer until the next day, making her feel unresponsive.

This isn’t the first time Susan has been disappointed with Carol’s performance and she expects to end up in a fight if she expresses her dissatisfaction. This time before getting upset and angry with Carol directly, Susan reviews the emotional contract using the questions above and realizes that while she had agreed to contact the customer by the end of the day, she hadn’t made it clear to Carol that she needed the information back no later than 3pm to give her time to ask questions and play telephone tag. Even though Susan might expect Carol to have understood that, she admitted to herself she hadn’t been explicit about the deadline. However, Susan had expected a complete write up and it was clear reading the customer’s original complaint that Carol hadn’t provided all the relevant information. This left Susan feeling unsupported, exposed, disrespected and angry.

Opening Negotiations

Now that you think you know what the breach of contract is, it’s time to bring it up with the other person and open negotiations. Word of warning, though, don’t assume they have any idea what an emotional contract is. Part of leadership is doing the work and modeling it for others, so in this case, you can introduce them to the idea of emotional contracting by simply stating:

  • What I agreed to do.
  • What I thought they agreed to do.
  • A request for confirmation that they see it the same way and if not, to express what they believe the agreement is.

When Susan addresses the issue with Carol the next day, she opened with an admission that she hadn’t been clear and promises to be more precise in the future with exactly what she needs and by when, thus thwarting much of Carol’s anger and surprise by opening with an apology. She asks Carol what she thought the task had been and whether she had been at all unclear about the request, and they discover Carol had been confused but didn’t ask for clarification. Susan shared with Carol that by not asking questions, Carol delivered something incomplete that left Susan feeling exposed when preparing to talk to the customer. The two agree that in the future, Susan will be clearer. Also, Carol agreed to ask for clarification when she needs it as well as confirmation from Susan that she feels prepared before the deadline.

Sure it might still be messy, but you’ll be surprised how often simply breaking it down like this will start to help you have a more productive conversation than the last one you had that was cloudy with emotion. In future posts we’ll look at how these relationship agreements can help sort out other difficult office phenomena like micromanaging, tyrannical behavior and disrespectful employees.

By the way, if you’re a mentor, this is an awesome skill to pass on to your mentee to help her deal with a challenging boss or difficult relationship at the office. Emotional contracting is a great way to manage a relationship from a position where you feel powerless to one where you’re squarely in your own power and it’s something we want all our aspiring leaders to know how to do in order to help shape our business cultures intentionally.

How good are you at negotiating emotions that get in the way of your business dealings? Got any personal tips and tricks that others can learn from? Leave them in comments!

This post originally appeared on the Reclaiming Leadership blog. Check out my new self-service women’s leadership coaching website:InPowerCoaching.com.

Dana Theus