The Forces Behind Deception in Negotiations

By on / BATNA

Adapted from “When You’re Tempted to Deceive” by Ann E. Tenbrunsel and Kristina A. Diekmann for the July 2007 issue of the Negotiation newsletter.

Despite your best intentions, one or more of these four forces might lead you to behave unethically during a negotiation:

1. The Lure of Temptation

Whether or not negotiators lie depends in part on how lucrative the rewards are, Ann E. Tenbrunsel has found in her research. In one of her studies, participants played the role of a partner in a two-partner firm that was being dissolved. They were asked to provide “honest” estimates of the market share of their products to help determine how to divide the firm’s equity between the two partners.

Some participants were told that if they were awarded the most equity, they would receive $1; others were told they would receive $100 in the same instance. Those promised only $1 misrepresented their honest estimates 41% of the time; by contrast, those promised $100 misrepresented their estimates 69% of the time. The higher reward provided a significant temptation to lie.

Similarly, the larger the bribe, the more likely we are to take it, Harvey Hegarty of Indiana University and Henry Sims of the University of Maryland has found.

Returning to our opening story, the more desirable the job, the more likely you are to lie about having better offers. It seems our ethical standards are more fluid than we’d like to believe.

2. Uncertainty’s Attraction

Uncertainty increases the likelihood that we will be unethical, Roy J. Lewicki of Ohio State University and other researchers have noted. Uncertainty about the material facts in a negotiation can inspire unethical behavior.

In another study using the two-partner situation described above, Tenbrunsel led negotiators to be either fairly certain or fairly uncertain about the honest estimate of the market share of their products. Rather than providing more cautious estimates, uncertain negotiators actually provided more aggressive, less honest estimates than the more confident group.

It seems that in a job negotiation, uncertainty about the possibility of a better offer could increase the likelihood that you would falsely claim to have other offers.

3. The Power of Powerlessness

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said historian Lord Acton, yet studies show that a lack of power is more likely to lead us to behave unethically.

Consider that outside alternatives to agreement are a strong source of power in negotiation (see BATNA, for more details). In their research, Tenbrunsel and David Messick of Northwestern University found that a lack of outside options increased negotiator deception. In one study, participants acted as manager negotiating with potential clients. When managers were told they had relatively few other potential clients, they were more likely to misrepresent information than when they were told they had plenty of potential clients. No wonder, then, that a job applicant lacking other solid offers might be tempted to claim that she has many.

4. Anonymous Victims

Suppose that your job negotiation is with several people – a recruiter, the human resources manager, the division president, and the director of sales. When negotiating with this group, you’d be more likely to lie than when negotiating with one person, research from Charles Naquin of DePaul University suggests.

In one study, participants were presented with an ethical dilemma and were faced with whether to lie to their opponent. For half the participants, that opponent was an individual, and for the other half, that opponent was represented by a group of individuals. Participants with a group of opponents lied to them about the amount in the pot 73% of the time; those with individual opponents lied only 36% of the time.

Probing further, we found that negotiators perceive interactions with groups to be less personal than interactions with individuals, a perception that they believe justifies increased unethical behavior when dealing with groups.

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a FREE copy of our Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals special report from Harvard Law School.

Related Article: Heading Off Deception

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