You Have Less Information Than You Think

By on / Business Negotiations

Adapted from “You Are Too Powerful for Your Own Good?” by Ann E. Tenbrunsel for the September 2005 issue of Negotiation.

Most negotiators understand the importance of preparation and will dedicate significant time and energy to analyzing important negotiations in advance.

Chances are, however, that powerful negotiators will undertake less informative and less accurate analyses than their weaker counterparts will.

For instance, in a hypothetical salary raise negotiation, a negotiator may be so confident of her contributions that she will fail to thoroughly investigate several other important factors; the extent to which her boss met his annual sales goals, the relative performance of her peers, or the company’s overall financial health. Clearly all these variables would be relevant to her salary negotiation.

Researchers Elizabeth Mannix of Cornell University and Margaret Neale of Stanford University have found that high-power negotiators have trouble correctly judging the interests of their low-power counterparts.

Low-power negotiators tend to be significantly better at this task. Why?

In part, due to differences in information processing.

Those in power tend to engage in simplistic processing based on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, whereas weaker parties are more likely to conduct deliberate and more complex information processing.

According to this point of view, low-power negotiators process date more effectively than high-power negotiators.

Of course, it’s not the case that high- and low-power players receive identical information in a negotiation.

David Messick and Ann E. Tenbrunsel have found that power is more like a dartboard than a shield. To “correct” a perceived power imbalance, low-power negotiators may engage in whatever strategy they deem necessary, including misrepresenting information.

In one study, we found that low-power negotiators were more likely to bend the truth when communicating with high-power participants than vice-versa, clearly to the detriment of high-power negotiators.

According to these two sets of findings, powerful negotiators receive less accurate information than low-power negotiators and are more likely to analyze the information they do receive with less depth than low-power players. Given that knowledge is power in negotiation, powerful parties may find their strength rapidly diminishing over the course of talks.

Related Article: Dealing With Difficult People – The Right Way to Regulate Emotion


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.


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