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Problems with BATNA

Problem #1: Retaliation and Escalation
Many negotiations are to resolve a conflict or dispute. Using BATNA in these situations can easily lead to an escalation of the dispute or retaliation by the other party. Assuming negotiation is the preferred method of choice in solving a conflict, bringing an alternative “walk-away” option into play is often interpreted as an attempt to make a power play over the other party. Which brings a purely emotional response and increases actual and possible conflict. For example, close to home, in a marital dispute if one spouse brings the “walk-away” option of divorce into the negotiation, that alone is likely to quickly send that negotiation off the rails. Nobody likes being delivered an ultimatum because it takes away the basic human need for self-determination, which creates resentment.

Problem #2: Lack of Alternatives
The concept of BATNA assumes you have alternatives to a negotiated agreement, but in reality there is often no alternative – or at the very least, no other readymade deal on the table. BATNA proponents insist that if you don’t enter into each negotiation armed with a strong BATNA, you are setting yourself up for failure. In practice, the only readymade BATNA may be the status quo, which is often a very weak BATNA. Building a strong BATNA may require multiple sequential or concurrent negotiations. But if you haven’t reached a deal in these other negotiations, how is it possible to know your BATNA and determine whether the deal on the table is better than your walkaway option?

Problem #3: Dependence on Intuition
Negotiators who rely on BATNA are encouraged to look at their walkaway option in relation to the other partys walkaway option. They are told that the party who has a better BATNA in the negotiation has more leverage. Then that they are encouraged to believe that their BATNA is the strongest at the table. This strategy is on the slippery slope towards deception and deceit by increasing the temptation to play the “smoke and mirrors” game. Plus it asks the negotiator to use their instinct and intuition to gauge the other partys BATNA. Intuition is often wrong and relying on it in negotiations opens you up to deception as well.

Problem #4: Too many Variables
When using BATNA, negotiators are asked to see “not just one step ahead, but two or three steps ahead.” This is rubbish. Is it possible to see two or three steps ahead? If it is, why don’t companies react instantly to the actions of their rivals, start-ups or changes in the market? Why don’t they always see outside forces like new technologies that could eventually lead to their demise? With all the variables involved in a BATNA driven negotiation, it starts to look like an over-complicated chess game where the alternatives, perceptions of alternatives, the deal/no deal balance, the dynamic nature of things and their relationships with each other are all just waiting to change or be influenced by the next move. Only a superhuman could actually manage all these variables and concepts, many of which are outside the negotiator’s control or perception.

Problem #5: Destructive Power Plays
A BATNA dominated approach is about power. It is used to gain concessions, induce compromise and force compliance. Relying on BATNA in negotiations can easily be perceived by a counterparty as bullying or give the impression that you have decided on “my way or the highway.” When you go into a negotiation with a “walk-away” option in mind, it’s all too easy to use your BATNA as negotiating leverage. If you use your options to beat up the other party, it’s like going on a date and mentioning all the other people you could be dating. The relationship is not likely to get too far.

Problem #6: Fear of Negotiation
If you believe that without a strong BATNA you will not be able to negotiate an effective deal and you’re looking at undesirable or non-existent walkaway alternatives, you are in trouble. A weak BATNA can lead to the delay of important negotiations or avoidance of these negotiations altogether. This results in lost opportunities plus it can prolong and exacerbate conflicts.

Problem #7: Setting yourself up for Failure
By its nature, BATNA describes what you will do if a negotiation fails. This is not what you want going in. When you prepare your BATNA you are in fact preparing for failure of the negotiation. First, the alternative of walking away simply does not exist in many situations of conflict. The alternatives we do have are likely to engage in resolving the conflict or to minimize and deny it. Plus, a preoccupation with BATNA or alternatives makes it hard to be fully committed to completing a negotiation or resolving a conflict.

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