What is BATNA and WATNA

Managers and supervisors are often faced with both BATNA and WATNA in scenarios where they don’t seem to believe they are negotiating.

This is really too bad as managers and supervisors can leverage the knowledge of BATNA and WATNA to effectively get to outcomes in difficult conversations and scenarios with subordinates.

A negotiated agreement is the endpoint of many crucial conversations and in any negotiation scenario, there are three possible outcomes:

batna and watna

An agreement

This is what happens when every party gets an agreement they can live with and one that meets, not only their own needs but also the needs of other parties not present at the bargaining table.

The best alternative to a negotiated agreement

The BATNA is what one party has in its back pocket that will allow them the “freedom” to walk away from the table without negotiating an outcome. The term has the word “best” in it, and represents what the party who has come up with it, thinks is the best. One party may look at (or hear about) the other party’s BATNA and think privately (or say out loud) “I’d never go for that outcome.”

The worst alternative to a negotiated agreement

The WATNA is what one party has in their back pocket that binds them to the table with the other party, whether an outcome is negotiated or not. The term has the word “worst” in it, and represents what the party who has developed it, believes is the “worst possible outcome, in spite of all other outcomes.” One party may look at (or hear about) the other party’s WATNA and think privately (or say out loud) “That alternative outcome isn’t so bad. What’s the problem?”

There are always alternatives—worst and best for each party—to getting to that endpoint. The alternatives are detours a negotiation can take that allow parties to migrate away from the endpoint.

If the endpoint of the agreement isn’t the point of a conversation, then maybe being satisfied with the best (if we “win”) or the worst (if we “lose”) is good enough.

There are two problems with this point of view though:

  1. Even though parties can acknowledge with their mouths that the world of negotiated conversations exists in gray areas, very few lived actions following the conversation back that up. Plus, it’s not enough to just be good enough. Now, the challenge is to either be the best or to suck.
  2. Going beyond getting the BATNA or the WATNA (you know, “agreeing to disagree”) there’s a concern as one party seeks to emotionally, or psychologically manipulate, the other party to a previously staked out “truth” through the misuse of persuasive power.

Overlooking BATNA and WATNA

batna and watna

In a negotiation, because human beings have to be prompted to act altruistically, parties often overlook BATNAs and WATNAs. Even worse, the negotiating parties often overlook BATNAs and WATNAs, until either a stalemate is reached, or a checkmate situation looms on the horizon.

The term “alternative” is often emphasized in discussions of BATNAs and WATNAs because human being like the idea of having access to alternatives in a negotiation scenario with a party they don’t trust, but actually accessing and developing those scenarios, requires expending emotional energy.

And many parties would really prefer to “win” the negotiation rather than to take the time to develop alternatives, and to map out possible scenarios if things go sour at the bargaining table.

Limiting Factors of BATNA and WATNA

batna and watna

There are three ways to limit the power of this tendency to go for the “win” at the expense of developing alternative scenarios to a “win”:

  • Recognize that the other party is often dominated by factors they don’t bring to the table. For instance, if an employee is negotiating a raise with their boss, they should keep in mind that the boss reports to other people as well. Then they must ask the question “How would my boss, giving me the raise I deserve, make my boss look good?”
  • Recognize that you are dominated by factors that you may not want to have the other party bring to the table. In the example, the employee may need the raise in order to care for a sick child or to meet an emergency expense. The boss in that scenario might want to ask himself or herself “What are the motivating factors behind this person asking for a raise?”
  • Recognize that agreement doesn’t always have to be the ultimate outcome. Both parties can always separate and come back, while they develop BATNAs and WATNAs. This feels counterintuitive, but the best diplomats never try to close a deal immediately. And the best negotiators open soft, give the other party time to think the process over, and always follow up promptly. The caveat to this is that the timeline will vary per the context of the negotiation. A police hostage negotiator may have minutes to get to an agreement, a diplomat may have weeks, months, or even years, but an employee may have days.

Expending emotional energy to develop negotiation alternatives (both “best” and “worst”) can help a negotiator move from someone who merely pursues short-term gains to one who develops long-term engagement with the other party.

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