Your Reputation at the Bargaining Table in Business Negotiations

Here's a potential benefit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at the bargaining table - cultivate a cooperative reputation and let that guide your opponent's negotiation strategies

By on / Business Negotiations

Why are negotiation skills important in business? To build relationships

In multi-issue business negotiations, research suggests that the advantage goes to negotiators with a reputation for collaboration rather than competition. In a series of studies by Catherine H. Tinsley and Kathleen O’Connor, participants were told they would be negotiating with someone who had either a tough reputation, a cooperative reputation, or an unknown reputation. Although this information was fictitious and randomly assigned, it had a major impact on participants’ expectations during the negotiation simulations and, ultimately, on both sides’ outcomes.

Specifically, negotiators with a reputation for tough, self-interested bargaining fared worse than did those whose reputation was unknown. What’s more, negotiators with a reputation for effective collaboration achieved better deals than did those with a competitive or an unknown reputation.

You can’t fully control what others think and say about you, but you can seize opportunities to appear as cooperative as possible during and after a business negotiation.


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

3 Negotiation Tips for Improving Your Reputation at the Bargaining Table

1. Build trust by granting early, small wins.

When parties trust each other, they feel safer sharing sensitive information about their needs and interests. Allowing the other side to achieve small wins early in the exchange can go a long way toward building a climate of trust and cooperation. New York Police Department hostage negotiator Lieutenant Jack Cambria often begins his negotiations by asking the hostage taker if he wants Cambria to tell the truth. When the hostage taker replies yes, Cambria agrees to do so—thus allowing the hostage taker to believe he has achieved a small victory.

The same lesson applies to the business world. Consider asking your colleague to choose the meeting place for your negotiation about a tough budget issue, or letting a direct report decide what to discuss today and what to put off until tomorrow. Conceding on seemingly minor procedural points can help build trust, set a cooperative tone, and give the impression that you’re making progress.

2. Communicate your interests.

Once talks are under way, opening up about your interests and priorities can demonstrate a cooperative spirit and promote mutually beneficial deals. Divulging a piece of sensitive information will give your counterpart a more accurate picture of where you stand as well as the boundaries of a potential agreement. Suppose that, as a vendor, you inform a prospective buyer that you prefer a delivery date in late June to meet a quarterly quota. Now you can work together to figure out how to meet this date—and reach a deal that gives both sides more of what they want.

When mutual distrust prevents parties from talking candidly, revealing information can provide an inroad. Because reciprocity is such a powerful norm, contributing insights about your own interests can encourage the other side to reveal something about hers—while also shoring up your reputation as a cooperative negotiator.

3. Focus on “how” as well as “what.”

Experienced managers understand that the way in which a message is delivered can matter as much as its content. In fact, Robert Bies of Georgetown University and Joseph Moag, professor emeritus of Northwestern University, found that even unpleasant outcomes can be acceptable if the news is communicated in a manner that seems fair. Treating someone with politeness, respect, and honesty can give her a sense of being treated fairly.

Imagine that you’re negotiating with your team over the upcoming year’s projects, deadlines, and resources (see also, Putting Your Negotiated Agreement Into Action). Carefully addressing members’ interests, responding calmly to their anxieties, and acknowledging their abilities will communicate your respect for them. In addition, the overall quality of the agreement is likely to increase if the process leaves teammates feeling more comfortable and confident. Encouraging a shift from adversarial bargaining to joint problem solving will also burnish your reputation as a cooperative partner in negotiations (see also, Use Integrative Negotiation Strategies to Create Value at the Bargaining Table).


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

Originally published in 2011.

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