Negotiation Skills Are a Must for Planning Managers

The move from staff planner to a manager makes negotiation a central part of day-to-day work.

Planning managers negotiate in formal and informal ways within their organizations. They negotiate "up" with superiors over assignments, decisions, and staffing levels. They negotiate "across" with peers in other departments. And managers negotiate "down" with their staff members on work assignments and team processes.

Planner managers also negotiate with outside parties, such as other agencies or developers. This post focuses on a common task: a public sector planner negotiating with a developer regarding project approval conditions.

Why is negotiation important?

A common example is that zoning codes cannot foresee every site situation, and therefore allow for discretionary variances. Similarly, plans, policies, and organizational procedures cannot foresee the variety of issues that arise over time.

Rather than be easily resolved by reference to a policy or a rule, many problems require a unique solution. This frequently occurs when stakeholders have conflicting but valid goals or points of view.

The idea of negotiated settlements is a change from entry-level planning practice, where technical analysis often determines the “best answer.”

A need for negotiation indicates that the question is complex — different parties have different “best answers” and a wise compromise is needed. If a planning manager holds the view that there is one right answer, they won’t avail themselves of the advantages of negotiation in resolving complex problems.

Types of negotiation

Some planners have a view that negotiation is an unsavory deal-making approach that is vulnerable to corruption. It can be. Others dislike the adversarial nature of some negotiations or worry that they will be outsmarted by a clever attorney. Indeed, some parties don’t engage in good faith, play dirty tricks, and/or withhold their true intentions in seeking the most gain. This type of negotiation is termed distributive negotiation because it is about who wins the biggest slice of the pie.

A more productive conception is mutual gain negotiation in which the parties seek to make the “pie” bigger before dividing up the spoils. The pie is the overall aggregate benefits to all parties.

Assume that a developer is seeking discretionary approval on a project. Rather than each party starting with extreme positions, the city planner and developer first brainstorm ways to create value based on each party’s interests. Let’s say it is relatively easy for the city to offer expedited permit processes and relatively easy for the developer to increase the affordable unit component.

If the parties discover this, then they can trade those items and produce a win-win, a better outcome for both parties. Then, the traditional negotiation task of dividing up the pie can occur.

A manager can’t impose a mutual gain negotiation when the other party is only seeking an advantage. Planning managers must feel their way for the possibilities of mutual gain negotiation, and if this is not possible, must revert to traditional strategies to avoid being out-maneuvered.

Skills in negotiation can be learned and improved through practice and study. Popular books like Getting to Yes offer useful advice. More specialized training, including role-play scenarios, are offered by a number of organizations. I use scenarios from the Program on Negotiation at the Harvard Law School in my classes, which offer role-play exercises based on planning issues.

As you move into management, include negotiation skills on your professional development to-do list. While this post focuses on development negotiations, these techniques are equally useful in negotiations with superiors, peers, and staff inside your organization. And your spouse, partner, friends, and/or children may also appreciate your newfound ability to find agreement.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist." This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images photo.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


August 6, 2019

By Richard Willson, FAICP