Individual Differences in Negotiation—and How They Affect Results

Our individual differences can be a boon or a benefit to our negotiations, research shows. Here’s how to determine if you need to change.

By — on / Business Negotiations

individual differences in negotiation

Negotiation advice is often “one size fits all,” yet we approach negotiations with vastly different experiences and traits. How do individual differences in negotiation play out? In one study, Washington University professor Hillary Anger Elfenbein and her colleagues found evidence that individual differences, including personality, accounted for an impressive 49% of the variance in negotiators’ performance and satisfaction.

Negotiators differ in many ways—including their gender, race, and education levels. Here, we look at three other categories of individual differences in negotiation, as described by Elfenbein in a chapter of the Handbook of Research on Negotiation.

1. Personality Differences

Numerous personality traits in negotiation can affect our outcomes. Extroversion, or one’s levels of sociability, assertiveness, and optimism, can be a liability when negotiators are haggling over a single issue such as price, writes Elfenbein. Imagine an outgoing negotiator spilling the beans about their bottom line or enthusing too much about a product they just have to have. By contrast, extroversion is generally an asset in more complex negotiations, where parties can work together to create value—thanks, presumably, to sociable negotiators’ ability to draw out the other side’s interests in conversation.

Negotiators who are in a good mood perform especially well, thanks to their tendency to use cooperative strategies, set higher goals, and exchange information more effectively than others. By contrast, those in a bad mood have difficulty reading their counterparts and are prone to rejecting beneficial offers, though they may be especially focused and vigilant in negotiation—a possible upside.

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Openness, a measure of one’s imaginative thinking, broad-mindedness, and intellectual curiosity, is associated with higher gains for both parties in multi-issue negotiations. Negotiators who score high in openness are skilled at identifying solutions that benefit both themselves and their counterparts.

Finally, research on personality and negotiation suggests the sense of satisfaction that comes with high self-esteem may lead negotiators to end talks prematurely, believing that they’ve performed as well as they can. Those high in self-esteem also tend to be more pleased with their outcomes than those who are less self-assured.

2. Cognitive, Emotional, and Creativity Differences

Cognitive complexity, or the ability to recognize and integrate multiple perspectives, is a measure of intelligence that is correlated with negotiation success. Individuals who score high in cognitive complexity approach negotiation in a sophisticated manner, seeking out a broad array of information, generating various alternatives, and making accurate predictions. Thus, they are well positioned to reach mutually beneficial agreements in complex negotiations.

Emotional intelligence in negotiation—the ability to appraise, express, regulate, and use emotions at the bargaining table—has received little research attention, but work in other realms suggests that emotionally intelligent negotiators are likely to benefit from this ability. For example, they may be skilled at deciphering their counterparts’ feelings, controlling their own emotions, and defusing tensions, writes Elfenbein.

Creativity, a common individual difference, has been linked to better problem solving in negotiation and “win-win” agreements, though not to better financial outcomes. Finally, negotiators who score high in cultural intelligence, or the capacity to adapt to culturally diverse situations, are particularly skilled at facilitating information sharing and, as a result, reach more integrative agreements than others.

3. Motivational Differences

Our goals and motives affect how we behave at the bargaining table as much as what we see and hear does. Though we approach negotiations with varying goals and motives, overarching drives and needs guide our behavior across situations, according to Elfenbein.

One broad motivational difference among people is the degree to which we are generally concerned for ourselves versus others, a difference with implications for how we negotiate. More specifically, negotiators can be categorized as (1) prosocial, or concerned about both sides’ gains; (2) competitive, or focused on outperforming the other party; or (3) individualistic, or self-focused and indifferent to a counterpart’s outcomes.

Prosocial negotiators have been found to reach better outcomes for both parties than the other groups but only when they set ambitious goals. At the far end of the prosocial spectrum, individuals high in “unmitigated communion” are so concerned about others that they set low goals and ask for little for fear of damaging the relationship.

Can Individual Differences in Negotiation Be Changed?

Clearly, individual differences in negotiation effectiveness do exist. To what degree can you alter aspects of your personality, motives, and other traits to improve your negotiation results? It can be difficult to alter our individual differences in negotiation, but with guidance and practice, it often can be done. For example, highly competitive negotiators frequently reap the benefits of prosocial behavior after learning about the potential upside of working to expand the pie of resources for all. And anxious individuals may be able to calm their fears about negotiation through various practices.

We all can benefit from thinking about how our various traits and quirks could be keeping us from achieving as much as others do. In the end, though, we must carefully analyze what we truly value and pursue it wholeheartedly, even if it seems illogical in the eyes of others.

Which of your own individual differences in negotiation might be helping or harming you?

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