Conflict Management: When Do “Sacred” Issues Keep Negotiators Apart?

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Adapted from “When Do ‘Sacred Issues Keep Negotiators Apart?,” first published in the November 2009 issue of Negotiation.

At some point or another, most negotiators claim that a certain issue is a deal breaker.If you’re trying to sell your business, for instance, you might walk away from talks with a potential buyer who you believe would lay off many of your longtime employees. Or if someone asks you to go in on a venture that violates your moral principles, you might refuse to even consider the prospect.

A desire to safeguard your personal integrity, health, or safety, or that of those close to you, may cause you to declare certain issues sacred in your negotiations—completely nonnegotiable under all conditions. Yet a refusal to compromise on key issues can lead to impasse in an otherwise beneficial deal.

Moreover, researchers have long theorized that many of the issues we claim are sacred are actually “pseudo-sacred”—that is, they’re off-limits under some but not all conditions. According to this view, our resolve regarding sacred issues can waver, whether or not we realize it. When do negotiators stand firm on sacred issues? In a recent experiment, a research team led by professor Ann E. Tenbrunsel of Notre Dame University explored this question. In particular, they looked at whether the strength of one’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA)—an important source of power in negotiation—affects whether negotiators bend or stand firm on the issues they hold sacred.

Negotiating a sacred space

In their study, Tenbrunsel and her colleagues asked pairs of MBA students to negotiate a hypothetical environmental dispute between a lumber company that had recently purchased the rights to harvest trees in an area inhabited by a Native American tribe, and members of the tribe, who objected to harvesting because they viewed the land to be sacred. One student in each pair acted as the representative of the lumber company, and the other student represented the tribe. Before their negotiations began, some of the pairs were encouraged to think about the principles and convictions that would be important to them as they conducted their talks. By contrast, those in the control group were not explicitly instructed to think about principles.

In addition, some of the pairs were told they had a strong BATNA (specifically, a high chance of winning a court battle if they couldn’t negotiate an agreement), and other pairs were told they had a weak BATNA (a low chance of winning the dispute in court).

How power affects values

In the talks that followed, among pairs of negotiators who were told in advance that they had a strong outside alternative to agreement, those who focused on sacred issues had more impasses than did negotiators who were not focused on sacred issues. However, when pairs of negotiators had weak alternatives, focusing on sacred issues did not increase the rate of impasse.

It seems that a lack of power motivated negotiators to relax their stance on their principles and convictions and come to agreement.

Thus, the students’ stated principles and convictions were revealed to be “pseudo-sacred” rather than sacred, according to the research team. The negotiators stood by their sacred values and accepted impasse only when they could afford to do so. Even students who held extreme environmental views were willing to cave under the pressure of a weak BATNA.

Relaxing our standards

In the real world, negotiators probably are more likely to hold fast to their principles in the midst of heated talks than the students in this low-stakes experiment were.

Yet the study does reinforce the importance of looking carefully at your BATNA and other sources of power before you negotiate. If your outside alternatives are weaker than you originally thought, you may become more willing to make tradeoffs on a previously taboo issue.

In addition, telling your counterpart about your willingness to compromise on a key value could motivate him to do the same. Let’s return to our opening example, in which you are trying to sell your business.

If your only offer comes from someone who would institute layoffs, you might make your peace with the deal if the buyer promised to offer a generous severance package to your employees.

The research team’s findings raise an interesting question: Are such compromises on sacred issues good or bad?

That’s a question only you can answer.

Related Article: Sacred Issues in Negotiation


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