Adapted from “Promote the Positive or Minimize the Negative?” First published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Tory Higgins, a social psychologist, and his colleagues Lorraine Chen Idson and Nira Liberman have introduced the concept of regulatory focus. According to Higgins, when making decisions, people focus on either promotion or prevention. Those focused on promotion are primarily concerned with accomplishments, hopes, and aspirations, while those with a prevention focus care more about safety, responsibility, and obligations.
A promotion focus leads to greater value creation and value claiming in negotiation than a prevention focus, researchers Adam Galinsky, Geoffrey Leonardelli, Gerardo Okhuysen, and Thomas Mussweiler have shown. In one study, they found that people who are more promotion focused tend to obtain more of the pie in a fixed-sum simulation. Essentially, a prevention focus made participants nervous that the deal would fall through, which reduced their assertiveness and their ability to claim value.
In a second study, the researchers manipulated regulatory focus through priming. Half the participants were asked to describe the negotiation behaviors and outcomes they hoped to achieve and to think about how they could promote these behaviors and outcomes. The other half were also asked to describe their desired behaviors and outcomes but were told to think about how they could prevent these behaviors and outcomes. Participants primed with a promotion focus made more aggressive opening offers and claimed more value than participants primed with a prevention focus.
The message from these studies: Be careful about entering into a negotiation with the goal of protecting or preventing a particular outcome. A prevention focus does not bode well for your ability to create or claim value.