Allies and Enemies

By on / Business Negotiations

Adapted from “Who’s Watching? How Onlookers Affect Team Talks,” by Karen A. Jehn (professor, Leiden University) and Lindred L. Greer (professor, University of Amsterdam), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Imagine that you and a colleague get into an argument about the layout of a final report in front of a coworker you both like. Now suppose the same argument occurs in front of someone your colleague likes but you do not or vice versa—in front of an ally who is your colleague’s foe. As it turns out, the presence of various team members during a negotiation with another teammate may affect your negotiating ability.

Information exchange. Negotiators in a team setting who distrust each other tend to withhold information even when information sharing is critical to the task at hand, Karen A. Jehn of Leiden University and Lindred L. Greer of the University of Amsterdam found in their recent research with Heather Caruso of Harvard University. This suggests that you’ll be more likely to share information with your negotiation partner when you like other team members who are present. By contrast, if you dislike or distrust certain onlookers, you may withhold more. Similarly, your negotiation partner may be reluctant to share information in front of certain team members.

Balanced relationships. In his classic book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (Wiley, 1958), Fritz Heider observes that we tend to seek balance in our relationships. This desire for balance may lead you to turn against a friend’s enemy or, conversely, to befriend an ally’s friends. If both you and your negotiation counterpart dislike an onlooker to your dispute, you may actually grow to like each other more and collaborate more with each other. The presence of a “common enemy” causes negotiators to bond against the outsider.

When one negotiator strongly dislikes an onlooker whom the other negotiator likes, the two negotiators may begin to behave competitively with each other. Suppose that your closest team ally sees you negotiating with someone he doesn’t like. To maintain relations with your ally, you’re likely to find fault with your counterpart—a form of transference that will jeopardize your outcome.

In negotiations with colleagues, it’s critical that you strive to reduce the impact of workgroup alliances. Here’s how:

• Acknowledge negative feelings. We all know how difficult it can be to confront animosity during a negotiation at work. If you’re negotiating in front of someone you dislike or with whom you are uncomfortable, first acknowledge these feelings to yourself.

• Deal with clashes privately. Try to remove personal emotions from the task at hand by dealing with them privately. This should reduce the degree to which your allies’ expectations influence your negotiating behavior. Similarly, communicate concern for the relationship with your counterpart while at the same time making sure the negotiation remains as task oriented as possible. By doing so, you may be able to prevent personality clashes from influencing your talks with other coworkers.

• Share information. During a negotiation, strive to stay focused on hammering out the best agreement possible by sharing relevant information. Intentionally hiding information to exact revenge on a colleague who has burned you in the past is likely to backfire in the form of a deal that overlooks significant sources of value. Concentrate on the trust you’ve developed in the past, and guard against “catching” contagious negative feelings from observers.


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.


Related Article: Why It Pays to Build Relationships

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