Finding Your Employees' Black Swan: How Negotiation Tactics Can Improve Employee Engagement

Employee engagement has been a hot topic for nearly a decade. Studies conducted by Gallup indicate that companies with highly engaged employees report an 18 percent increase in productivity and a 23 percent increase in profitability, not to mention significant decreases in employee turnover, absenteeism, and product defects. With gains like these, it’s obvious why companies are keen to develop an engaged workforce. 

But that can be easier said than done.

While there are several different definitions of employee engagement, they all relate to an individual employee’s opinion, attachment, and/or dedication to their job and employer. Many companies utilize employee recognition software and other ready-made solutions to help engage and validate their employees. However, employee engagement is an individual matter. While these solutions aid engagement, they will not work for everyone. 

If you notice one or more of your employees are not engaged with their work, it may be time for a new approach. 

Negotiation is a key element of business. However, it’s tactics are rarely discussed outside monetary situations (sales, contracts, salary, etc.).  In his book, Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss states, "Life is a negotiation. The majority of interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic urge: I want."

With this mindset, the skills and tactics used to negotiate sales and salaries can be used to increase employee engagement. Your “I want” statement is simply, “I want my employee(s) to be fully engaged at work.” 

It’s not necessarily a selfish want. Engaged employees frequently report higher job satisfaction and increased well-being. But employees won’t become engaged in their work just because you tell them it’s good for them too. If you want to successfully negotiate engagement with your employees, you need to discover their Black Swan. 

Close up image of a black swan's head and neck.

Finding the black swan

Black Swan theory was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but it’s based on a saying from 17th-century London. It was common for Londoners to refer to impossible things as “black swans,” since only white swans inhabit Europe. But Dutch explorer Willem De Vlamingh discovered black swans do exist when he traveled to Australia in 1697.

Today, most people use Black Swans as a metaphor to refer to unforeseen events that dramatically impact how things are done. The global COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of a Black Swan event. However, Black Swans can also be pieces of information that drastically change expectations. 

In negotiations, Black Swans are the unanticipated “I want” statements, the hidden motivation driving someone to act. If leveraged properly, Black Swans allow both parties to walk away with what they desire. 

Discovering your employee’s Black Swan is the key to helping them engage in their work. Maybe they're trying to gain experience for the next step in their career or simply saving up for a dream vacation. Whatever it may be, understanding their Black Swan will give you the insight you need to create a win-win situation.

However, uncovering a Black Swan can be difficult. Many employees, especially unengaged employees, don’t know what’s really motivating them. If you try to just ask them outright, you’ll likely get very simple answers that don’t convey the whole story. If you want the truth, you’ll need to engage in what Voss refers to as tactical empathy. 

Tactical empathy is understanding the feeling and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow. It’s bringing our attention to both the emotional obstacles and the potential pathways to getting an agreement done. It’s emotional intelligence on steroids.

—  Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference

Use tactical empathy

We all fall victim to the fallacy that everyone else thinks and feels the same way we do. We balk when others are offended or upset by something we consider to be completely benign. Unfortunately, instead of trying to understand each other, we often just assume the other person is an anomaly and continue believing everyone else is on our side. 

As humans, we don’t like things that are different. It’s a primitive reflex leftover from our caveman days where anything that was different was likely going to hurt or kill us. However, you have to overcome this aversion to differences if you have any hope of discovering your employee’s Black Swan. 

The moments when your employees do or say something you don’t understand or think is “crazy” are some of the best moments to discover their Black Swan. Engage them in conversation. Ask them for more information until you start to understand how they think and feel, or what their “I want” statement is. The following tactics will help keep your conversation flowing:

  • Mirroring — Repeat the last (or most important) 1–3 words the other person said in the form of a question. For example, if your employee said, “I’m going skydiving this weekend.” You would simply respond, “Skydiving?” This indicates you heard what they said and are interested in hearing more. 
  • Labeling — If you notice a pattern in the conversation, label it. People feel validated when you can describe what they are feeling or thinking. If you misinterpreted something, it gives them the opportunity to correct you. To continue the previous example:

Employee: I’m going skydiving this weekend.
You: Skydiving?
Employee: Yeah, it’s kind of a tradition I have with my sister. 
You: It seems like you have a good relationship with her.
Employee: I don’t know if I’d say that. Skydiving is really the only thing we have in common.    

You could then continue the conversation by mirroring again or asking a follow up question until you understand the motivation behind your employee’s actions.

If your goal is to find your employee’s Black Swan, they should talk more than you. There will obviously be times in the natural flow of conversation where you say something about yourself or tell a related story. It can help form a connection between the two of you. But if you’re talking about you, you’re not learning about them. Keep the conversation focused on your employee.

Engage in casual social interactions

Black Swans rarely appear in formal meetings. Remember, Black Swans are unanticipated “I want” statements. They’re less likely to surface if you have a preset agenda.

Make the time to talk to your employees outside of your office. Stop to talk when you see them in the hallway or breakroom. Take a few minutes before and/or after a one-on-one to talk about something not-work related. It’s the casual, unguarded conversations where Black Swans are easiest to spot. 

It’s important to note that many people become nervous around those in positions of authority. They feel like they are going to be reprimanded or get in trouble somehow. It may take time and effort before some of your employees feel comfortable enough to have a casual conversation with you. Don’t get discouraged. If you continue to show genuine interest in your employees and their personal interests, they will eventually become more comfortable. 

Once you discover your employee’s Black Swan, you can start to successfully negotiate their active engagement.

Close-up photo of the hands of two people sitting next to each other on a couch.

Negotiating for engagement

Discovering your employee’s unanticipated “I want” statement turns the situation from you wanting something from them (“I want you to be fully engaged in your work”), to a situation where you want something from each other. 

For example, one of your employees really enjoys competition. They regularly get involved in activities like March Madness brackets or ping-pong tournaments. Even if the only prize is bragging rights, they seem to enjoy the challenge of competition. This could be a hidden “I want” statement: “I want to participate in competitions,” or even, “I want to win.”

You now have the opportunity to provide your employee with something they want in exchange for what you want. Talk to them about how you could create competitions out of their daily tasks to make work more rewarding for them. Depending on their interest, maybe even have them organize and track weekly, monthly, and/or quarterly goals for your team. If you negotiate properly, you should see an increase in your employee’s productivity and they should start to feel more fulfilled. 

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

It is absolutely crucial that you can fulfill whatever deal you make with your employees as soon as possible. If you’re using phrases like “I’ll see what I can do,” or “Depending where we are next quarter,” you are not done negotiating. Keep discussing what can be done until you have something you can act on and deliver within days. Making grand promises might motivate an employee for a week, but they will become actively disengaged as soon as they realize you cannot fulfill it. 

Let’s say you discover an employee’s Black Swan is that they want to become a graphic designer. They’re even going to school for it, but their current position has nothing to do with design. Promising to get them a job in your design/marketing department is obviously not going to work. Neither will promising you’ll “talk to the manager” to see if your employee can help out on a few projects. 

More realistic options would be to help your employee set up networking opportunities within your company or associates. Schedule a meeting with the head designer so your employee can ask questions about career growth, education opportunities, etc. Find small projects within your team or department that give them an opportunity to practice their skills. Have them design meeting handouts or training materials. 

You are not always going to be able to deliver exactly what your employee wants. But that is the point of negotiation — to collaborate with each other until you find a solution that both parties can realistically deliver. 

People in a circle with their hands stacked on top of each other in the center.

Investing your time

There is no “quick fix” when it comes to employee engagement. Even plug-and-play employee recognition programs and software won’t change company culture overnight. Talking to individual employees and discovering their Black Swans takes time and energy. Progress may be slow, but as employees become more engaged you should start to see the benefits positively impact your business. Step-by-step, you’ll get back to where you want to be. 

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