How to Negotiate With Your Boss: Lessons from The Art of War

How to Negotiate With Your BossMost of us have had difficult bosses at some point in our lives, or at least good bosses who have had difficult moments.  We have been kept in the dark about the larger context of our actions, sacrificed as pawns in political games, set in unnecessary battles with co-workers, asked to do nonsensical work that will be discarded as soon as we finish it, bullied, misled, micromanaged, pushed down, deprived of resources, underpaid and disappointed.  We have dealt with the acerbic, abrasive and irrational.  We have seen people in the office play out bizarre family dynamic games that make no sense to those outside their families, then dealt with their anger when they get upset that we are not playing our assigned roles.  We have even wondered about mental illness and dementia.  It is every employee’s fate at some point in life.

However, employees can use skills from the 2,500 year old Chinese classic The Art of War to help reach a balance with difficult employers.  Since we use some of the same cognitive systems to deal with interpersonal conflict as with physical conflict, some of its lessons carry over.

For instance, consider these quotations:

“There is no country that has benefitted from prolonged warfare.” As tempting as it may be, slow and passive-aggressive resistance is usually not the best approach to a chronic problem.

“Military tactics are like water, which naturally runs from a high place and hastens downwards.  So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike what is weak.”Your first response should not be to go to your boss and say “no.”  In a head-to-head battle, you will lose.  Do not pick fights with his favorites.  Do not go over his head.  Find out his weaknesses and appeal to them.  Otherwise, the best you might do is to win a skirmish but lose the war.

“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies or yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

Start by understanding your own situation.  You may get angry when people tell you to do things that seem dumb.  You may not like your boss.  You may know you have to be polite anyway.  You may have thoughts on how to convert a nonsensical assignment into something interesting.  You may know things about your schedule that would prevent you from getting involved with something particularly distasteful – “Sorry, I’d love to work on that with you, but I’ve already committed to a project your boss asked me to do last week.”  Without even thinking about your boss, you have started to generate options and a path for yourself.

Of course, you should remember that not all military strategies translate to every situation, such as “When you have a bad-tempered opponent, seek to irritate him.”  It might be a fun way to retaliate against a bad boss but will probably not make your office a more pleasant place!

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