Power in Negotiation: The Impact on Negotiators and the Negotiation Process

Negotiations Between Counterparts of Differing Status Lead to Different Outcomes Than Negotiations Between Equals According to Negotiation Research

By on / Negotiation Skills

According to Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley and his colleagues, power in negotiation affects two primary neurological regulators of behavior: the behavioral approach system and the behavioral inhibition system. Powerful negotiators demonstrate “approach related” behaviors such as expressing positive moods and searching for rewards in their environment.

By contrast, powerless individuals tend to experience a great deal of self-inhibition, triggered by fear of potential threats. Here, we elaborate on four key differences between the powerful and the less powerful – differences you can use to your advantage in negotiations.

Findings from Negotiation Research – Power in Negotiations

1. Powerful Negotiators Take Action

Whether generated by a strong BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, a powerful role, or a sense of confidence, power leads negotiators to behave more proactively throughout the negotiation process.

Along with Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford University, Adam D. Galinsky and Joe C. Magee have found that simply having individuals recall an experience in which they felt powerful makes them more likely to decide to negotiate a received offer than to accept the offer as is. This can lead to significant long-term financial gains, especially in the case of job offers.

The negotiation research also showed that powerful negotiators are more inclined than less powerful negotiators to make the first offer (see also, should you make the first offer?). In fact, in one study, having a strong alternative to a negotiated agreement led negotiators to be three times more likely to try to make the first offer. Notably, making the first offer produced a distinct bargaining advantage (see also, anchoring in negotiations).

The powerful are also more persistent than other negotiators, less likely to give up when confronted with setbacks and obstacles, and more likely to strive toward more aggressive goals. As long as they have something to gain, high power negotiators typically will not accept impasse. This assertiveness not only produces gains for the powerful negotiator but also enables integrative negotiations and the discovery of mutually beneficial tradeoffs that can benefit both sides.

2. Powerful Negotiators are Protected

Here’s an extreme negotiation example from international negotiations of how power can insulate you in negotiation. Ratko Mladic,  a Serbian military commander in the conflict with Bosnia-Herzegovina, was notorious for adopting negotiation styles and negotiation strategies characterized by angry eruptions and emotional diatribes.

This strategy apparently worked only when Mladic, who was eventually charged with war crimes, dealt with his subordinates; more powerful negotiators, including those from other countries, were uncowed by his displays of anger.


Power offers protective armor against the treacherous behavior of your opponents; the powerful are not easily manipulated.

Researcher Gerben Van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam found that only low-power negotiators were strongly influenced by their opponent’s expressions of anger; they made larger concessions than when no anger was expressed. High-power negotiators barely seemed to notice the other side’s emotions; they identified their own true bargaining interests and offered only the concessions necessary to reach a good deal.

How can you gain this advantage?

Immediately before negotiating with someone you know to be emotional and demanding, reflect on a time you negotiated with a strong BATNA. Recall your sense of confidence and control. Generating psychological power can immunize you from your opponent’s angry tactics.

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

3. Power Negotiators are Creative Risk Takers

One common notion about power is that it leads to entrenched ways of thinking. This might be true when someone holds a position for a long time, but in dynamic contexts such as bargaining scenarios, psychological power leads individuals to be more creative. Our research indicates that psychological power helps people identify novel ways of thinking about problems and makes them less likely to conform to the constraints imposed by the other side’s offer.

One consequence of this liberation is that power can lead to optimism and risk-seeking behavior, according to research conducted with Cameron Anderson. When we gave powerful people the option of engaging in a risky course of action, they focused more on potential payoffs and less on the potential dangers than did other negotiators.

This tendency has both positive and negative effects on negotiated agreements. The powerful often risk revealing information about their preferences and priorities – a crucial step in creating value and expanding the size of the pie in integrative negotiation.

The powerful are also more inclined to engage in risky strategies that can provoke retaliation, such as displaying hubris or making self-defeating threats and ultimatums.

Because power also increases the tendency to bluff, it can up the competitive climate of a negotiation, leading to missed opportunities. Deception can also become attractive to a high-power negotiator focused more on potential gains than on the risk of being caught.

4. Powerful Negotiators Lose Perspective

One of the most crucial skills that negotiators can develop is perspective taking, or the ability to appreciate and understand the world from another person’s vantage point.

This brings us to the most consistently negative effect of power on negotiation behavior and outcomes: powerful negotiators often fail to take their counterpart’s perspective. Power leads individuals to overlook what the other party wants and needs and why he needs it.

Power in negotiation is most effective at the bargaining table when combined with perspective taking. When the powerful take time to consider their counterpart’s points of view, they harness the positive benefits of power (including the making of first offers and persistence) without succumbing to excessive risk taking. The ultimate lesson? Strive to possess power in negotiation – or simply feel powerful – and follow up with perspective taking.

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Related Negotiation Skills Article: Know Your BATNA – The Power of Information in Negotiation

Adapted from “Power Plays” in the Negotiation newsletter by Adam D. Galinsky and Joe C. Magee.

Originally published in 2013.

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