The Good Cop, Bad Cop Negotiation Strategy

The good cop, bad cop negotiation strategy is common in sales negotiations and other competitive contexts. Learn to identify and defuse this persuasion ploy when it’s tried on you.

By on / BATNA

good cop bad cop negotiation

Imagine sitting down with two managers, Tim and Mindy, to negotiate a significant sale on behalf of your company. Tim emphasizes his desire to meet your interests, but Mindy jumps in with an outrageous, even insulting, offer. Tim urges her to make a concession. Suddenly Tim seems like a trusted friend. You find yourself taking his advice and working hard to bridge your gap with Mindy, even proposing concessions you never intended to make.

What just happened? You’ve unwittingly been the victim of the good cop, bad cop negotiation strategy. In a good cop, bad cop negotiation, two individuals or parties, working as a team, extend a series of rewards and punishments with the goal of gaining an advantage over their counterpart. A well-known interrogation room technique in law enforcement, the good cop, bad cop negotiation strategy in the business world involves one “cop” acting in a “threatening, hostile, and abusive manner,” while the other adopts a “nonthreatening, friendly and sympathetic manner,” writes Curtis H. Martin in the Nonproliferation Review. The “nice” negotiator aims to gain the target’s trust and win a concession, lest the target be stuck with the unappealing offer of the tough negotiator. A good cop, bad cop negotiation poses considerable challenges in negotiation and bargaining.

Discover how to unleash your power at the bargaining table in this free special report, BATNA Basics: Boost Your Power at the Bargaining Table, from Harvard Law School.

Why We Fall for the Good Cop, Bad Cop Negotiation Tactic

Why is the good cop, bad cop negotiation strategy often so effective? The tactic preys on our tendency to like people who agree with us and seem similar to us, an effect that’s heightened by the presence of a good guy’s demanding partner. The contrast between the two partners’ negotiating styles “makes the ‘carrots’ offered by the good cop seem even sweeter and the ‘sticks’ offered by the bad cop even harsher,” writes Stanford professor Robert Sutton in a blog post about good cop, bad cop negotiation.

In one experiment, researchers Susan Brodt of Duke University and Maria Tuchinsky of INSEAD found that the good cop, bad cop negotiation strategy can be very effective at helping parties claim value from their target—but only if the bad cop starts the negotiation and the good cop follows.

That doesn’t mean you should try it, however. Like most types of negotiation tactics aimed at manipulation, the good cop, bad cop negotiation tactic can ultimately destroy trust between parties and harm your reputation—not to mention, damage your self-respect.

Recognizing a Good Cop, Bad Cop Negotiation

In a 1991 article, Sutton and Professor Anat Rafaeli of the Technion institute in Israel identified the following four negotiation techniques and tactics that are variations on the good cop, bad cop negotiation routine:

  1. Sequential good cop, bad cop: The classic strategy in which the good cop and bad cop take turns interacting with their target.
  2. Simultaneous good cop, bad cop: The good cop and bad cop argue with each other over how good of a deal to offer the target.
  3. One person as both good cop and bad cop: A solo negotiator uses a mixture of good cop and bad cop techniques, such as switching from friendly to impatient or being indecisive about what to offer.
  4. Good cop warning about a future bad cop: A negotiator might warn that he’s giving you the best deal possible and that if you come back tomorrow, you should expect to get a worse deal from his boss

How to Address the Good Cop, Bad Cop Negotiation Strategy

Now that you are familiar with the good cop, bad cop negotiation strategy, you should be able to recognize it. How should you address it? Head-on, writes G. Richard Shell in his book Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People (Penguin, 2006).

Returning to our opening scenario, you might say to Tim and Mindy: “It looks to me as if Tim’s the good guy here and Mindy’s the bad guy. I’m used to negotiating in a more straightforward manner. Can we try to work together more collaboratively?” Be aware, though, that if it turns out that you are wrong, and the two negotiators are merely revealing their true personalities and concerns, they could be offended by your accusation. Therefore, you might want to avoid naming the good cop, bad cop negotiation tactic and instead simply encourage greater cooperation with the goal of creating new sources of value.

 Have you ever faced a good cop, bad cop negotiation, and how did you cope?

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