Unfortunately, we live in a world where ambitious people are often taught to believe1 that playing hardball is the mark of someone ambitious and successful or what separates the true heavy-hitters from everyone else.
This isn’t to say that hardball tactics don’t work. They sometimes do, but when used indiscriminately they can also end up squandering your power due to an inaccurate assessment of the situation; failing to keep your ego in check; disrespecting your colleagues, clients, or partners; or overestimating your power and control. In this sense, hardball tactics can be like power moves in that they are to be used judiciously and only when other methods aren’t working. Unfortunately, some people use them indiscriminately. So what should you do when hardball tactics are used against you?
Get Into the Right Mindset
Before we review ways to respond to hardball tactics, the first step is to get into the right mindset. There are too many decent people out there, the kind who strive for win-win situations, who let themselves get caught off guard by hardball tactics. Due to something called the false consensus effect, people tend to assume that others are just like them in terms of values, beliefs, and attitudes. When others turn out to not be like them, they are caught off guard.
The world should have more people just like you, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t. There are those who couldn’t care less about win-wins, and they’d be more than happy to take advantage of you if it means racking up bigger wins for themselves. It’s not about viewing everyone suspiciously; it’s about being aware of the full range of human behavior and to not be too shocked when a colleague, partner, or client ends up not being the paragon of virtue you had hoped they’d be.
8 Responses to Hardball Tactics
In order to effectively respond to hardball tactics, you have to know when they’re being used against you in the first place. Generally speaking, if someone is playing hardball, you’ll know it’s happening even if you’re not aware of all the specific tactics (though it wouldn’t be a bad idea to learn to consciously recognize those tactics).
Having said that, here are eight ways to deal with hardball tactics. As with William L. Ury, Jeanne M. Brett, and Stephen B. Goldberg’s “Interests, Rights, and Power model,” in real-life situations, you’ll likely not be using just one of these but some combination of them.
- Ignore them. This should only be used cautiously. If your counterpart says something and you sit there in silence indefinitely, that’s not likely to lead to an optimal outcome. However, you can certainly ignore them while they’re making an unreasonable demand instead of impulsively reacting immediately. You could quietly shuffle through your papers or glance at your phone, for instance. The lack of a quick reaction can sometimes throw hardball players off their game because they’re expecting you to react. It gives them a chance to potentially regret coming on too strong and be more reasonable (maybe) when you do respond. Ignoring usually works best when used in combination with one of the other six responses.
- Change the subject. This can be effective on its own or as a follow-up to method 1, ignoring. For example, you can pause for a moment and then simply go back to whatever you were talking about before the other side pulled their hardball tactic. When used calmly and smoothly, this can have a deflating effect on the other side’s inflated ego or confidence.
- Walk away. This is different from ignoring in that you’re communicating you need some time away from the current interaction. Use whatever pretext that seems reasonable. For example, one time I was trying to negotiate what I felt was a very reasonable compromise with a colleague. Unfortunately, she reacted very negatively. Instead of escalating, I said, “I can see that this discussion isn’t going well. We’ve had a good working relationship and I don’t want to sour it, so I’m just going to step away for a while.” It was basically a timeout. That night I decided I was going to just give up on my request, but to my surprise, the next time I met with this colleague she basically told me, “Craig, I’m okay with what you proposed.”
- Label and discuss. In folk legend, there was the idea that calling a demon by name gave you power over it. It’s the same way with tactics. Once a tactic is revealed for what it is, it often loses its power. Let’s say your counterpart is playing a version of “good cop, bad cop.” You could gently and politely, maybe half-jokingly, say that while it might not be their intention, something about their current approach sort of feels like “good cop, bad cop.” If they were indeed playing “good cop, bad cop,” simply by labeling it you have eliminated that tactic from their arsenal.
- Respond in kind. Responding in kind means to basically use the same hardball tactics your counterparts are using against you. For example, if you’ve worked hard to create a win-win situation where you both get 50 percent out of a deal but they’re asking for 75 percent, you could take that further and respond by asking for 90 percent, just as a way to show how unreasonable they’re being. As with labeling, responding in kind exposes a hardball tactic for what it is.
- Kill them with kindness. This is the opposite of responding in kind. But you’re not ignoring or walking away from the negotiation either. You stay engaged, and, without giving in to your opponent’s demands, you continue to be charming, gracious, and friendly—genuinely, not sarcastically. The effect can be highly disarming to your opponent.
- Co-opt the aggressor. This is the most difficult method to use well, and it requires careful planning or an ability to think on one’s feet. Essentially, the idea is to use Robert Cialdini’s principle of consistency. You want to find a way to use your opponent’s own arguments against them. For example, your counterpart demands 90 percent of a pie that was originally $100K, which amounts to $90K. You check and ask if $90K would make them happy and they say yes. Let’s say you then find a way to expand the pie to $1 million. Your counterpart now changes their tune and asks for 90 percent of $1 million, which would be $900K. But you say, “You just said you’d be happy with $90K. But I’ll tell you what. Since this relationship is important to me, let’s say 50/50. That would be $500K, much more than what you said you’d be happy with.” You have just co-opted the aggressor and used their own arguments against them.
- Endure and tolerate. In some cases, it’s possible that none of these methods would work, which is why each situation needs to be carefully assessed using the SOS model. You could choose to walk away, but perhaps permanently instead of just momentarily as with method 3. Or, there can be situations where you have no other options, realistically, other than to work with your counterpart for the time being (I’ve seen many situations like this in the supply chain industry, for example, when single-source suppliers start trying to exploit the dependency of their customers). While in this position, however, look for ways to shift the short-term dynamic over time or redefine the relationship in a way that makes you less vulnerable.
Most people would prefer to never find themselves in situations where hardball tactics are being used. But you can’t ignore the reality that they are used, just like you can’t afford to ignore workplace politics in general. Therefore, study the methods above not so you can use hardball tactics on others but so you can protect yourselves from them.