Seize the home field advantage

Home field for who?
photo courtesy flickr user Dru Bloomfield -- at Home in Scottsdale

(MoneyWatch) Everyone plays better at home -- but why? And can we use this home field advantage in business to get better results?

I interviewed Ashley Merryman, co-author with Po Bronson of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, to learn the research on place and negotiation -- and why learning your waiter's name isn't just nice, it's smart.

Laura Vanderkam: How do we behave differently on our home turf, and why is this more likely to result in a win?

Ashley Merryman: We do behave differently when we're on our home turf. In the absence of a challenge, we feel safer at home. It's not just knowing the lay of the land, but there's comfort from the sense of identity we draw from having a connection to a place. For a while, offices have been experimenting with "open plans" -- where no one has a specific workspace. The research says that's a mistake. Employees are more devoted to a company that gives them a dedicated space, even if it's just a small cubicle: It's as if they "own" part of the company.

When there is a challenge on our home turf, we work harder; we're more motivated during a home game. An at-home loss is more embarrassing, while an at-home win is more exciting and satisfying than a win on the road. But beyond that, our strategies change. At home, we are more willing to confront even small threats, and we're less willing to concede to an opponent. We become more assertive and aggressive; we take bolder stands.

It's also important to note that the connection to home field isn't just that it's "Mine." Instead, it's "Mine, not yours." It's the desire to exclude someone else from being there -- to dictate what he's going to do. You're in control.

The researchers say that this home-field determination probably has evolutionary roots -- the ability to claim that corner of the Savannah as yours.

LV: In business, you usually go visit a client to pitch a project -- is this a faulty strategy?

AM: Well... not for the client.

I was once telling a friend about professor Graham Brown; in experiments, Brown's concluded that a home turf advantage can get you up to 160 percent more value in a negotiation -- regardless whether you're the buyer or the seller. And Brown has concluded you'll get more money if you ask for a raise when you're in your office, than if you'd asked while in your boss's. I told that to a friend of mine, and he scoffed, "Nobody ever gets to ask for a raise in his own office." I replied, "Exactly." He had a stunned look on his face and just said, "Oh."

I do actually think that may be some of why the clients (or bosses) expect you to come to them. There's an implicit recognition that if you are trying to sell someone something, convince a person to act, then you have to do it on their turf. You acknowledge their desire for a stronger, more secure position that will help them say "no" to you. You're going to have to overcome their home field advantage.

That means that a pitch in someone else's office is going to have to be more effective, more powerful.

LV: Is there some way to make a neutral turf "yours"?

AM: If you can't have a big meeting in your office, I'd suggest finding a neutral location, such as a restaurant. Then, get there first, at least 10 minutes early, and don't wait near the entrance. Instead, go sit exactly where the meeting will be. Learn your waiter's name, where the bathroom is, and order a drink or something. Rearrange the table setting (move the salt and pepper, etc.) and spread some papers or files around. Even get out a personal item such as a picture of your kids. Don't just make a mess, because you don't want to have to move things or straighten up when the other people arrive. Instead, they should feel that they must fit their stuff into the small amount of remaining space.

After you've done all that, get to work: Be just as immersed as if you were in your office. And when the others "finally" arrive, address your waiter by name when you order for them. Basically, turn the table into your desk, and the waiter's become your receptionist.

Photo courtesy flickr user Dru Bloomfield -- At Home in Scottsdale