Bridging the Gap Between Groups

By — on / Business Negotiations, Daily

Adapted from “What Divides You Can Unite You,” by Susan Hackley (managing director, Program on Negotiation), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

When we think about negotiating with people from other cultures, we tend to think globally: how might differences in nationality or race affect our bargaining outcomes? But cultural differences can also be local, existing not only between nations or organizations but also within them. We negotiate with our coworkers every day—about workload, schedules, division of labor, raises, and vacations. And while your organization may present a united front to the world, its members are hardly homogeneous.

In fact, it’s likely that a whole range of microcultures exist within your organization. Within one company, managers, salespeople, administrators, designers, and engineers may all have their own unique vocabulary, values, knowledge base, and history. Style differences can subdivide organizations. Some workers may like meeting face-to-face, while others prefer to communicate via phone or e-mail. Religion, politics, age, gender, marital status, and education also influence how people interact at the office.

These differences can have a strong impact on intrafirm negotiations. In his research, Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse has identified ways in which people negotiate differently based on their occupation. His survey of lawyers, managers, members of the military, accountants, diplomats, and other groups uncovered some striking distinctions.

For example, 40% of the lawyers surveyed preferred to negotiate formally; these negotiators used titles when addressing counterparts and avoided discussing personal matters. By contrast, fewer than 20% of the marketing and engineering professionals surveyed preferred a formal style. Instead, they tended to begin discussions on a first-name basis and sought to quickly establish friendly relations with the other team. When it came to risk, all the military respondents surveyed described themselves as high risk takers in negotiation, compared to only 36% of the diplomats and civil servants.

In some spheres, microcultural differences within an organization can be a matter of life and death. Following the Challenger disaster of 1986, a presidential commission studied the events leading up to the explosion of the space shuttle. One reason cited for the failure was a breakdown in effective decision making between the Thiokol Corporation (now ATK Thiokol) engineers, who worked on the booster rockets and were responsible for signing off on the technical aspects of the mission, and Thiokol management, which had overall responsibility for the shuttle program. The two groups lacked an effective way to negotiate their differences.

Perhaps because they were all working toward the same goal, the managers and engineers overlooked the cultural barriers that were hindering their negotiations. They might have bridged the divide by appointing a facilitator to ensure that both sides understood the data correctly, to remind them of their shared goal, and to enable everyone to speak freely.

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