Aspirations and Outcomes
Est. time: 7 min.
- Comparing your own tendencies in setting goals with those of other readers
- Weighing the benefits and costs of having high aspirations
- Seeing that achieving a good result isn’t always satisfying
Knowing when and how to close a negotiation depends on what you originally set out to attain—and quite possibly how those priorities may have shifted along the way.
To begin this module, take the following preference quiz. It was developed by Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice. He has kindly allowed us to use it here. Please do not use it elsewhere without his express permission.
There are no right or wrong answers. After you have responded to the thirteen questions, a score will pop up. Make sure to note that result as it will be discussed in some of the other modules in this unit.
People’s responses to this set of questions vary a lot. Just think about your own experience going out to a restaurant with friends. You must know some people who decide what they want after just a quick glance at the menu and others who obsessively pour over the choices, trying to figure out which will be the very best.
Professor Schwartz has found big differences in temperament and behavior between people with low and high point totals. Those on the lower end of the spectrum (with 39 or fewer points) he calls “satisfiers.” People at the other end (with 65 or more points) are “maximizers.”
In one of his studies, Schwartz analyzed the amount that Swarthmore College graduates earned right after graduation: Maximizers were paid $20,000 more than classmates who were satisfiers. That seems like great news for them, of course, but as we’ll see towards the end of this module, it comes at a significant cost.
A similar dynamic applies in negotiation. Experiments have shown subjects with higher aspirations tend to get better results. For example, if one subject in a mock-negotiation hopes to sell a property for $300,000, they are likely to get a higher price than someone else who is aiming for a lesser price, say $250,000. There are several likely explanations for this effect:
- People who aim low risk underestimating how much room there is for agreement. If you only consider doing better than your fallback, you may overlook the possibility that your counterpart values what you are offering much more than you do.
- Others who aim high may be more likely to put the first number on the table, and thus anchor the other party’s expectations.
- Likewise, people with high aspirations may be slower to make concessions. Focusing on what they think they should get (even if that’s unreasonable in other people’s eyes) may make them reluctant to give anything away.
- And when the other party puts forth a surprisingly attractive offer, a person with low aspirations may quickly grab it. By contrast, someone who is bolder may counter by asking for even more.
So, what’s the lesson: set a goal that’s very high and then double it?
Not so fast. It’s true that negotiators with higher aspirations tend to get better outcomes. But there is a big downside. They also fail to reach agreement more often. That makes sense for a variety of reasons:
- Their ambitious goals may be unrealistic. The room for agreement may be smaller than they think. Dreaming big can pay off in some situations but it may also squash potential deals in others.
- A negotiator who makes bold demands (or stingy offers) may alienate counterparts. Others may even eject plausible deals to preserve face and their own self-respect.
- Likewise, a negotiator with a specific target in mind may be blind to more creative ways of structuring an agreement that maximizes value for both sides.
Schwartz has found another cost of high aspirations, as well: increased likelihood of dissatisfaction. Remember the Swarthmore maximizers who were paid $20,000 more than their satisfier-classmates? Even though they were earning more, they were much less happy with their outcomes. In an odd way, that sort of makes sense. The same drive that motivates them to think big regarding goals doesn’t vanish when they are done. They keep wondering if they could have done even better.
As with many things, the answer is finding the right balance. Be something of a maximizer when you begin negotiations. Think imaginatively about why your counterpart might be eager to make a deal with you. But as you negotiate, look critically for evidence that either supports or contradicts that best-case scenario. If it turns out that the other party seems willing to reach agreement, but not as generously as you initially hoped, adjust your aspirations accordingly. And when you’re done, turn your maximizer dial down to zero. Be satisfied with whatever you accomplished and look ahead to your next negotiation.
Negotiation courses are typically built around a series of simulations. Students are assigned roles, given confidential information, and paired up to negotiate with a classmate. As part of preparation, teachers often ask students to state their preliminary goals and walkaways. Both sets of numbers typically vary a lot. Some people have modest goals while others aim high, very high in certain instances. (As you just saw, Professor Schwartz’s preference quiz reveals the same kind of pattern.)
In negotiation, aspirations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least in part. If you don’t expect much, that may be exactly what you get. On the other hand, there’s an upper bound to realistic expectations. Dreams that you’ll somehow get more than your counterpart would ever offer don’t magically come true.
So, the challenge involves setting an ambitious target, while also grounding it in reality. Set a stretch goal, one that you know is long shot, something that may have only a 10 percent chance of being achievable. And then test it by imagining what conditions just might make it feasible. For example, if you’re dealing with a vendor, what might prompt them to give you a deep discount? Maybe it’s near the end of a quarter and they’ll get a bonus for meeting their quota. Or perhaps they value the opportunity to build a long-term, profitable relationship with your company.
From time to time, you may achieve your stretch goal. When that happens, congratulations! But don’t let your highest aspirations deter you from making other deals that may not be as spectacular as you hoped, yet still are superior to what you could get elsewhere.
Donald Dell, Never Make the First Offer (Unless You Should), Penguin, 2009.
Barry Schwartz,The Paradox of Choice, Harper Perennial, 2006.
Michael Wheeler, The Art of Negotiation, Ch. Closing, pp. 183-200, Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Harper Business, 2016.