Negotiators generally believe that dominance will give them an edge and for good reason. Some past studies have shown that when negotiators act dominantly by raising their voices, expanding their body postures to appear larger, and moving themselves to physical positions associated with power they can often claim more of the value available in a negotiation.
But not always. Colleagues and I have discovered that there are instances when negotiators should act deferentially they should maintain a constrictive body posture, adopt a softer tone of voice, and take other steps to ensure their negotiation partner feels respected, competent and unthreatened. It all comes down to the complexity of the deal and how the person across the table is behaving. In negotiations with many moving parts, negotiators need to find a conversational dynamic that allows them to exchange information effectively, to unravel the different areas of dispute, and to ensure that all the nuances of a potential deal are fully explored. This is best achieved when two parties attain what we call dominance complementarity, wherein one person in an interaction behaves relatively deferentially and the other behaves relatively dominantly.
Why is this? Consider the options a negotiator has when she squares off against someone who acts dominantly from the negotiation’s outset. The negotiator can match dominance with dominance. In this case conflict often escalates, people focus on winning each issue, and negotiators become more likely to reach impasses; mutually beneficial tradeoffs are rarely discovered. Alternatively, the negotiator can display deference in response to dominance. In this case the dynamic becomes more comfortable and the negotiators become better able to parse complex issues. In fact, we have noticed that each side will take on a clear role. The dominant negotiator will asert preferences and the deferential negotiator will ask questions to try to find solutions that satsify both parties.
But that does not mean that acting deferentially is always best. If one negotiator acts deferentially from the outset, the other negotiator should actually assume a dominant style. Meeting deference with deference may lead to collegiality; however, it does not reliably lead negotiators to discover the tradeoffs that create win-win agreements. Without one negotiator asserting strong statements of preferences or priorities and displaying a degree of inflexibility on these issues, compromises are too quickly made and information that negotiators might have otherwise used to discover more efficient agreements are never discussed.
In a set of two experiments, we had people participate in mock negotiations over either the merger of two companies or over a job offer. Both scenarios involved multiple elements so as to simulate a complex negotiation. We gave participants pay-off grids telling them how valuable each issue was to them using a point system. We instructed some of the participants to act dominantly by using expansive body posture and taking charge of the conversation. We instructed some of the participants to act deferentially by using constrictive posture and making sure that the other person felt respected. The control group received neither instructions to act dominantly nor instructions to act submissively.
Across our studies, we found that pairs consisting of one negotiator behaving dominantly and the other negotiator behaving deferentially reached better deals than did pairs consisting of two dominant negotiators, pairs consisting of two deferential negotiators, or pairs in which neither negotiator received behavioral instructions. We judged the success of the deal by calculating the number of points negotiators accumulated from the payoff grid. They reached these superior deals because they more successfully exchanged information about their preferences and the priorities they placed on different issues. In short, they communicated more effectively with the dominant negotiators stating preferences and the deferential negotiator asking questions.
It is important to note that while adopting a deferential interactional style with dominant counterparts can help you in complex negotiations, you should not become truly submissive when playing that role. The negotiators behaving deferentially in our study who performed well did not sacrifice their own preferences or ignore their own desires. Instead, they used a more subtle, more respectful conversational approach to satisfy those desires and achieve their goals.
Next time you are negotiating, ask yourself if improving the amount and quality of information exchanged between you and your negotiation partner could improve the quality of the agreement you reach. If so, resist the urge to decide your interaction style before meeting your negotiation partner. Our research suggests that monitoring and tailoring your behavior based on one another’s interaction styles may allow you to achieve higher-quality deals.
Author:Â Scott WiltermuthÂ is an associate professor of management and organisation at USC’s Marshall School of Business
Source: Harvard Business Review