Types of Negotiating Power

by Nathanael Okhuysen

Look for other articles in the Negotiation Resources section.

When we say someone is in a strong negotiating position, what do we mean? Usually we’re talking about some sort of leverage. It could mean they can walk away easily, or that they have something the other side really wants. This article will discuss the six types of power a negotiator can bring to bear, and show you how to think about them when preparing for your next negotiation.

Six Types of Negotiating Power

Constructive Power

Constructive power is just the ability to provide or facilitate something the other side wants. Examples of constructive power:

  • A buyer has money, and a seller has goods or services.
  • A librarian can show you where to find the documents you need to research.
  • Parking enforcement can tow that car parked in your spot.

Obstructive Power

Obstructive power is the ability to keep the other side from getting something they want or to make something happen that they don’t want. While it is frequently a mirror to constructive power, a party can also take active steps to work against the interests of opposing negotiators. There is a danger to relying on obstructive power: threats can quickly erode trust and make repeated negotiations less productive. Examples of obstructive power:

  • A tenant can withhold rent from a landlord.
  • A bouncer can keep you out of a club.
  • Parking enforcement can tow your car.

Walking Power

Walking power is the freedom to walk away from a negotiation. It is increased by a strong BATNA. It is important not to use this power too forcefully; like obstructive power, it can erode trust. Walking power is like an emergency parachute: it’s best when you don’t even need it. Sources of walking power:

  • A well thought out alternative
  • Low investment in the outcome of the negotiation
  • A desperate opponent

Normative Power

Normative power relies on an appeal to a common value. Fairness and equality are frequently evoked values in negotiations. It doesn’t seem right that one side should get a much better deal, or shoulder a disproportionate share of costs.

While normative power is often overlooked, it is a cornerstone of informal negotiations and compliments other powers well. It is especially important to negotiators who have very little to bargain with in the other power categories.

Fairness and equality aren’t the only values a negotiator can leverage. A party whose proposal would actively benefit society as a whole has normative power as well. Negotiators who appeal to their opponent’s better nature, or invoke lofty ideals of how things “ought” to be, are usually demonstrating or exercising normative power. Some other sources of normative power include:

  • Wide popular approval
  • A history or tradition of a practice
  • The opinion of a recognized authority

Collective Power

Collective power is a capacity to enhance or augment another type of power by reaching out to individuals or group outside the negotiation. This may be a local organization or a wide network of contacts.

A familiar combination of collective and obstructive power are boycotts. A group comes together to obstruct the interests of an organization whose policies they seek to change. Other examples of collective power include:

  • Inter-union solidarity
  • En bloc voting
  • Friends in high places

Personal Power

Personal power is usually what people mean when they say someone is a good negotiator. In some negotiators, this is charisma or sheer force of personality that allows them to win over other parties. It includes abilities of a particular negotiator to work with others, problem solve, or persuade. Personal negotiation power allows the other form of power to be effectively deployed in competitive and collaborative negotiations. An individual with personal power may be:

  • A quick-talking con artist
  • A sensitive and insightful listener
  • A creative and candid problem solver

6 Types of Power
Create your own at Storyboard That Obstructive Walking Personal Collective Normative Constructive The capacity to prevent the other side from getting something they want. The capacity to leave the negotiation. The capacity to enhance another sort of power through personal qualities or capabilities. The capacity to enhance or augment another type of power by reaching out to individuals or a group outside the negotiation. The capacity to sway the negotiation with arguments about fairness, equality, or other normative values. The capacity to provide something the other side wants. Negotiation Power


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Power Analysis

Before you go into a negotiation, take some time to analyze where your negotiating power comes from. Analyze your opponent’s negotiating power and compare the two. This will not only reveal if one side has a significant advantage, but also how different types of power on each side could interact.

In this example, the CEO of NextWidget, a small startup, is preparing for the upcoming renewal of the company’s manufacturing provider, Fabricorp. To help him understand his negotiating position, he performs a quick power comparison to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. He sees that neither side really needs the negotiation to be successful, so he should take extra care not to be pressured into an unfavorable deal.

NextWidget v. Fabricorp Power Comparison
Create your own at Storyboard That MODERATELY STRONG MODERATELY STRONG WEAK WEAK MODERATELY STRONG MODERATE MODERATELY STRONG MODERATELY WEAK WEAK VERY WEAK MODERATE STRONG We are established customers and can keep providing them revenue with no new costs and low effort. They can manufacture our widgets for us, without the hassle and risks of switching manufacturers. We could take our business elsewhere, but they could quickly find another customer to replace us. They could force us to find a new manufacturer which would slow widget production, but only temporarily. We have several viable alternatives including our BATNA, LocalMade. Their services are in demand, but I'm not aware of a product that is equally profitable for them. We can point out we need to keep manufacturing costs down to maintain a positive bottom line, and we might deserve a discount for being conscientious customers. They could argue their margins are as slim as ours. We could try to organize with other Fabricorp customers to negotiate lower prices, but that would be difficult. If they really treat us unfairly we can be sure to tell people, but that's not something we can raise in the negotiation. Most collective power they could leverage would involve illegal anti-competitive collusion or interference. I'm a decent negotiator, but try a little too hard to please people. I do know the business very well though. Susan has a lot of experience negotiating and I always felt like she is in command of the conversation when we talk. She is extremely competent and knowledgeable. NextWidget Fabricorp Obstructive Walking Normative Collective Personal Constructive