From the war room to the boardroom, negotiations are a part of everyday life. Successful negotiations demand a clear understanding of one’s opponent. But, what approach should one take to achieve such an understanding of one’s opponent in everyday negotiations?
Morris and Alice Kaplan professor of ethics and decision in management Adam Galinsky, from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and colleagues William Maddux (assistant professor of organizational behaviour, Insead), Debra Gilin (professor of psychology, St Mary’s University), and Judith White (associate professor of business administration, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth) asked a similar question and found that success in negotiations depends on focusing on the head, and not the heart. In other words, it is better to take the perspective of negotiation with opponents rather than empathize with them.
Perspective-taking, according to the study published in the April issue of Psychological Science, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, involves understanding and anticipating an opponent’s interests, thoughts, and likely behaviour, whereas empathy focuses mostly on sympathy and compassion for another.
“Perspective takers are able to step outside the constraints of their own immediate, biased frames of reference,” wrote the authors. “Empathy, however, leads individuals to violate norms of equity and equality and to provide preferential treatments.”
The researchers performed a total of three studies designed to assess the relationship between successful negotiations and perspective-taking and empathy tendencies.
(Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint)
In two of the studies, the participants negotiated the sale of a gas station where a deal based solely on price was impossible: The seller’s asking price was higher than the buyer’s limit. However, both parties’ underlying interests were compatible, and so creative deals were possible.
In the first study, those participants who scored high on the perspective-taking portion of a personality inventory were more likely to successfully reach a deal. In contrast, higher scores on empathy led the parties to be less successful in reaching a creative deal.
In the second study, involving the same gas station negotiation, participants were separated into three groups: the perspective-taking group, which was told to imagine what the other person was thinking; the empathy group, which was told to imagine what the other person was feeling; and a control group.
The psychologists discovered that perspective-takers secured the most agreements and increased the satisfaction of their opponents compared with the control condition. Although empathizers produced the highest level of opponent satisfaction, they were less successful than perspective-takers in reaching a deal and thus failed to create long-term value for themselves and their opponent.
In the final study, participants were presented with a multi-issue negotiation regarding a job hire. Perspective-takers created more value and earned significantly more points for themselves than those from the empathy group or the control group. The empathy group, in contrast, obtained the least individual points.
The results of the three studies imply that perspective-taking is a useful trait to have and a useful approach to take in negotiations, and that empathy, although helpful in many types of social interactions, can be detrimental both for creating integrative solutions and promoting one’s own self-interest.
“Negotiators give themselves an advantage by thinking about what is motivating the other party, by getting inside their head,” Galinsky says. “Perspective-taking gives you insights into how to structure a deal that can benefit both parties. But, unfortunately, in negotiations, empathizing makes you more concerned about making the other party happy, which can sometimes come at your own expense.”
Galinsky has published three articles in Psychological Science in the past three months. In addition to this study on perspective-taking, research published in the May edition focused on power and suggested that being put in a low-power role may impair a person’s basic cognitive functioning and, thus, his/her ability to get ahead. For this study, Galinsky and his co-authors, Pamela Smith (Radboud University Nijmegen), Nils B. Jostmann and Wilco W. van Dijk (VU University Amsterdam), focused on a set of cognitive processes called executive functions. Executive functions help people maintain and pursue their goals in difficult, distracting situations. The researchers found that lacking power impaired people’s ability to keep track of ever-changing information, to parse out irrelevant information, and to successfully plan ahead to achieve their goals.
In an effort to reconcile the science stating that power leads to action and lack of power leads to inhibition—despite constant historical reminders of the powerless rising up and taking action—new research in the June issue suggested that the legitimacy of the power relationship is an important determinant of whether power leads to action.
The research—which Galinsky co-authored with Joris Lammers (Tilburg University), Ernestine Gordijn and Sabine Otten (University of Groninengen)—sought to determine at what point the powerless rise up and take action. These findings are the first to clarify when, and lend insight into why, power leads to behavioural approach, or action.
According to the researchers, when power is acquired or wielded legitimately (for example, following a fair election, or when actions are within authority), the likelihood of a successful cooperative environment is high, with the powerful leading and the powerless following. However, if power is borne of illegitimate means (in fixed elections or self-interested actions that exceed authority), this can motivate force and resistance from the powerless.
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(This column is contributed by staff writers of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.)