Will an MBA Program Teach Me How To Negotiate?


Q: “What do you call an MBA graduate who never learned how to negotiate?”
A: “Toast.”

That’s an old joke in management education circles, and not a very good one, either. But until the last decade, it accurately depicted the way most business schools had equipped their graduates with negotiation skills—which is to say, not very well.

For decades, long before the current trendy emphasis on leadership development, in management and organizational behavior courses, business schools mainly focused on productivity theories. One such paradigm was Management by Objectives (MBO). We covered this classic approach in BSchools in January 2019, contrasting it with venture capitalist John Doerr’s updated MBO derivative, his Objectives and Key Results (OKR) system from his bestseller Measure What Matters.

But the business schools didn’t devote much attention to teaching students how to negotiate, even though that’s a capability vital to the success of all managers—and especially critical to the success of modern technology entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

Three Expert MBA Business Negotiation Professors

Business schools have started hiring professors who represent a new breed of specialist faculty, including street-smart negotiation experts and research faculty devoted to creating outstanding experiential instruction in negotiation skills and techniques.

Before we present some of the negotiation instruction options currently available from business schools, we first profile three such expert faculty members who have taught negotiation courses in leading MBA programs for several years.

Chris Voss, MPA
McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University
Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

Chief among this new breed of street-smart faculty is Professor Chris Voss, whom many of our readers already know from his media appearances on network news outlets like CNN. He’s the famous former FBI special agent who directed more than 150 high-profile, high-pressure negotiations in the United States, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia—many involving armed standoffs with multiple hostages. Specifically, from 2000 to 2007, Professor Voss served as the supervisory special agent managing the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit. He also served as the lead negotiator for the U.S. National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group.

A professional with 22 years of experience with the FBI, Professor Voss started his academic career near the Bureau’s Washington DC headquarters by teaching at Georgetown University’s MBA program at the McDonough School of Business. Since 2008, he’s divided his time between both coasts, mainly teaching at Georgetown McDonough and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles. Because we cover online MBA education so extensively here at BSchools, USC Marshall drew our attention when that business school won the top spot in the Poets & Quants online MBA program rankings in 2019.

Professor Voss also maintains a long affiliation with Harvard University. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Professor Voss has also been involved for years with Harvard Law School’s Negotiation Project, the group that spawned the original version of the classic Getting to Yes negotiation treatise in the 1980s.

Collaborating with the Harvard Business School’s negotiation expert, Professor Michael Wheeler, Professor Voss also served as a consultant contributing to the development of a new online negotiation course. That course is offered through the university’s rebranded Harvard Business School Online unit, an HBS division we first profiled here on BSchools in April 2019.

Moreover, Professor Voss wrote Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, one of the best books ever written on negotiation strategy and tactics that we featured in our BSchools list of the most significant business books of all time. Four years after its publication, the book remains the number one bestseller in Amazon’s Business Negotiating category.

Stuart Diamond, JD, MBA
The Wharton School of Business and Penn Law School, University of Pennsylvania

Stuart Diamond has taught negotiation strategy and tactics for 20 years to MBA students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, as well as to law students at the Penn Law School. A former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, Wharton MBA and Harvard Law School-trained attorney, Professor Diamond first received attention for his research involving the now-famous negotiation technique known as emotional payments.

Like Professor Voss, Professor Diamond also has an association with the Harvard Negotiation Project at the Harvard Law School. Professor Diamond served as the project’s associate director, and also directed the group’s affiliated outside firm that provides consulting services to clients.

Professor Diamond won acclaim when he negotiated a resolution to the Writer’s Strike in Hollywood, which effectively shut down the United States entertainment industry during much of 2008. Google then adapted his 2011 New York Times bestseller, Getting More: How To Be A More Persuasive Person in Work and Life, to train 12,000 employees around the world in negotiation principles and human interaction. Notably, it was named the top negotiation book of all time by Inc Magazine (Inc.com), as well as the best book to read for your career by the Wall Street Journal and one of the top 25 books on leadership and success by Business Insider. Professor Diamond’s book topped the WSJ and USA Today business bestseller rankings and has sold more than 1.5 million copies in 27 languages.

Professor Diamond lists the United States Department of Defense and the U.S. Special Operations Command at the top of his consulting client list, along with governments around the world. Incredibly, more than 40,000 people in 60 nations—including 5,000 elite U.S. soldiers like Green Berets and Navy SEALs—have received training and advice from Professor Diamond.

Quinetta Roberson, MBA, PhD
Villanova School of Business, Villanova University

Unlike Professors Voss and Diamond, Dr. Quinetta Roberson hails from a traditional academic research background. After teaching for a decade at Cornell University’s Johnson College of Business and then Georgetown McDonough, today she holds an endowed chair as the Fred J. Springer Professor of Business Leadership and Management at Villanova’s School of Business.

Dr. Roberson is an expert on the science of inclusion within-group performance, and as this TEDx video presents, she’s a captivating speaker. Notably, in 2017, she built a unique negotiation course from scratch that applies the latest techniques in experiential instruction. At Villanova, her course is so wildly popular and fills so rapidly that many MBA students have trouble enrolling in it.

Unlike typical business school classes that meet for two or three sessions during weekdays, her class meets as an intensive weekend seminar starting Friday night and continuing all day Saturday and Sunday. First, on Friday night, Dr. Roberson carefully assigns teams and groups, ensuring that no student ever negotiates twice with the same classmate. She even adjusts role-play exercises to match the students’ needs. Frequently, she assigns salary negotiation scenarios for MBA jobs offered to graduating students and alumni, as well as employment disagreements and cross-cultural disputes.

Within these scenarios, she analyzes the students’ interactions to determine which strategies and tactics the parties used, and the reasons why one of the parties made the first offer. Then, she critiques the effectiveness of the bargaining techniques the students applied.

Negotiations like these can become extremely challenging for the students because Dr. Roberson insists that the counterparts arrive at “win-win” solutions, one of the core objectives under Harvard Negotiation Project guidelines. She told Villanova Captivating Courses,

If I’ve got to sell you on an idea, which is a negotiation, how do I get you on board? I have to show you what’s in it for you. I have to get you to “yes.” If someone walks away feeling like they lost, they won’t want to negotiate with you again. The class is about skill-building and developing a comfort mindset that allows students to feel confident in themselves.

How Business Schools Teach Negotiation

A brief review of available courses reveals that business schools offer a wealth of business negotiation courses.

Executive and Online MBA Negotiation Courses

Most business schools offer negotiation instruction primarily as short courses within their executive education divisions. And judging by the expensive fees charged for many of these seminars, they appear to be cash cow moneymakers in high demand—especially from students who also happen to be seasoned executives and top managers.

Some of these short courses operate entirely online, like the aforementioned course from Harvard Business School Online partially developed by Professor Voss. Another course offered by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the business school currently holding the top ranking among online MBA programs in U.S. News and World Report, also appears entirely online.

It might at first seem peculiar that business schools might attempt to teach human interaction skills through online channels. Yet, in a world battered by COVID-19 that’s trying to adjust to a “new normal,” online instruction of this type offers tremendous safety advantages to students as well as business schools.

Parenthetically, we first covered the impacts of the pandemic on management education here on BSchools in two articles: one in March followed by this update in April 2020. In the United States, the epidemic remains fluid and keeps changing on a day-to-day basis. Yet at the time of this writing in early June, most states continue to operate under some sort of modified lockdown order, with cases still climbing in 19 states.

And in several states that have started to reopen their economies like Arizona and California, policymakers are expressing alarm about a sudden, dramatic surge in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and a lack of medical center capacity. To students in regions like these, online instruction in negotiation fills a critical safety need.

On-Campus MBA Negotiation Courses

In the on-campus MBA programs designed for students with more limited business experience than in the executive MBA programs, most business schools also offer some sort of negotiation course. Often, these on-campus classes are not part of the required first-year curriculum. That’s because they don’t appear to be included within the core requirements for the best business schools who are members of the exclusive Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. We discuss the AACSB’s accreditation standards in more depth in this popular BSchools guide.

Instead, negotiation is typically taught on campus as an elective available only to second-year MBA students who have fulfilled all their core requirements. Like Villanova, some business schools like Penn State’s Smeal College of Business offer this subject in intensive on-campus seminars for both their on-campus and online students. Smeal’s seminar is a requirement for students at the beginning of their second year.

Can I Learn How to Negotiate During Business School?

Yes, students in most MBA programs can add negotiation skills to their arsenal, even in the business schools where such a class isn’t a requirement.

At on-campus business schools that don’t require such a class, should MBA students take negotiation as an elective? Absolutely! MBA students need these critical capabilities as soon as they can acquire them. For one thing, skillful negotiation of job responsibilities, salary, and bonuses can add thousands of dollars to an MBA graduate’s compensation during their critical first job after graduation. Plus, those skills can also lead to better performance evaluations, since many managers engage in some form of negotiation every day.

Moreover, as our profiles above demonstrate, the professors teaching negotiation courses are among the best in all of graduate management education. Often they’re the superstars on a business schools’ faculty.

That said, obtaining one of these courses as an elective can pose a number of challenges. Some business schools, like the Harvard Business School, don’t permit first-year electives. Many other top AACSB schools, like Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, have limited—if any—room for electives during their crowded first-year curricula.

So for most on-campus students, that leaves only two semesters (or three quarter-terms) to squeeze in their negotiation class during their second year. And because negotiation is one of the most popular subjects at many business schools, seats in these classes might not be available to all students because of scheduling conflicts or—as in the case with Dr. Roberson’s class at Villanova—extreme capacity restrictions. For example, during online advance enrollment for a recent term, MBA students snatched up all the seats in her negotiation class in under three seconds—a record for the university.

One possible solution might involve enrolling in one of the short courses on negotiation offered through the business school’s executive division. Ideally, a student could do that prior to their MBA program, or during the summer while a student might also be working in their internship.

A plan like this offers several advantages besides easier access to this crucial instruction. During such a seminar, a student could practice these skills long before salary negotiations for jobs at graduation. Also, because executive students tend to draw upon much more work experience, the interpersonal interactions during practice negotiations would probably seem more sophisticated and realistic during an executive class. And because of the subtle interpersonal dynamics and nonverbal cues in complex negotiations, this might be one of the few MBA subjects where in-person instruction might offer marginal benefits over online course delivery.

That said, given the COVID-19 pandemic, a reasonable approach under these challenging circumstances might entail enrolling in one of the online negotiation classes provided by business schools like HBS Online or UNC Kenan-Flagler. During fall 2020 and the winter of 2021, classes like these can provide distinct safety advantages.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

Related Posts

  • 10 July 2019

    Femme-BAs: How the Foster School of Business Wins with Women

    Many business schools still have demographics in the student body and faculty that seem pulled from the previous century. In Foster’s eyes, however, the concepts of diversity and inclusion aren’t a sidebar but rather they’re core tenets of what it means to be an innovative and contemporary business school.

  • 8 July 2019

    Why Older Professionals Enroll in MBA Programs

    In some cases, age comes with benefits. And when applying for an MBA program, work experience matters a lot. Acceptance rates at top business schools can be higher for older professionals.

  • 24 August 2023

    Online MBA Programs Ranked by Affordability (2023-2024)

    These online programs ranked by affordability can be a viable alternative to more expensive programs while still receiving an excellent education and providing the flexibility working professionals need to balance work, family, and higher education demands.

  • 12 April 2023

    MBA Salary Guide: Starting Salaries & Highest Paying MBA Concentrations (2023)

    Specializations amount to critical choices in an MBA student’s career. They permit students to immediately deliver highly marketable skills to an employer upon graduation, the value for which most employers will gladly pay handsome salaries.

  • 16 September 2022

    What’s a Flipped MBA Classroom?

    Recently here at BSchools we pointed out that online MBA programs carry extraordinarily large startup costs, in part because online curricula require sizable investments in production facilities and equipment. These programs also carry high ongoing upgrade costs, especially at highly-ranked business schools that exploit competitive advantages from new technology. However, at one top program, a different and surprising objective behind these investments has also emerged.

  • 12 August 2022

    Acing the MBA Essay Questions – Tips & Reviews

    Focusing on Harvard Business School application essays written by candidates who won admission, our previous guide in this series presented general principles for writing compelling long-form MBA essays. However, this guide takes a different approach. This article presents specific tips for writing short-answer essays constrained by tight word limits.

  • 3 August 2022

    Personal Reference Letters for Business School – Tips & Templates

    A great recommender is an MBA candidate’s champion. They need to fit the profile of the “raving fans” cited by management gurus like Ken Blanchard and Tony Robbins. Because the likelihood of a great recommendation letter mostly depends on whom the candidate selects to write it, their enthusiasm level amounts to a crucial benchmark and a major deciding factor.