Intercultural Negotiations: When Negotiators Try Too Hard

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Adapted from “Coping with Culture at the Bargaining Table,” first published in the May 2009 issue of Negotiation.

Though intercultural negotiating schemas can be useful, negotiators often give too much weight to them, according to an article in the May issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, “Starting Out on the Right Foot: Negotiation Schemas When Cultures Collide,” by professors Wendi L. Adair of the University of Waterloo, Canada; Masako S. Taylor of Osaka Gakuin University in Japan; and Catherine H. Tinsley of Georgetown University.

The research team surveyed American professionals who had conducted business negotiations with Japanese counterparts, as well as Japanese professionals who had experience negotiating with Americans.

The negotiators were asked to reflect on how they prepared for talks with people from their own culture and how they prepared for talks with people from the other culture (Japanese or American), as well as how such negotiations unfolded.

The results?

The study participants typically adjusted their negotiating style too far toward the other side’s culture.

Specifically, they expected a counterpart to negotiate as she would at home, not understanding that the counterpart would attempt to adjust her strategy to the foreign context as well. As a result, both sides tried too hard to adapt to their stereotypical ideas about the other side’s negotiating style (a phenomenon the researchers call schematic overcompensation). Ironically, this type of cultural sensitivity often led to culture clashes.

In their efforts to adapt to each other, the American and Japanese negotiators clashed on a number of negotiation dimensions, including the degree to which counterparts said they would directly share information, indirectly share information by making offers, or rely on status to persuade the other party.

Rather than meeting in the middle, the negotiators found themselves at cross-purposes. When the Americans described how they would approach the intercultural negotiation, they cited behaviors consistent with the stereotype they held of a Japanese negotiator.

At the same time, the Japanese described approaching the negotiation in a manner consistent with their stereotype of an American negotiator. For an example of how this might play out, imagine that a German sales rep is visiting your office. Your research has led you to believe that Germans have a formal negotiating style, so you skip the small talk and get down to business immediately. Now suppose that your German counterpart is, indeed, used to formal dealings with new partners in his home country, but he’s heard that Americans tend to be a bit more informal. Accordingly, he tries to spend some time building rapport with you before talking shop—and feels rebuffed when you hurry the conversation along.

Why We Focus on Culture in Business Negotiations

Why does concentrating on the other side’s culture lead to problems in negotiation?

Consider that negotiators often focus too narrowly on the most obvious information about the task at hand.

Such focusing failures lead negotiators to overlook information that’s just as important but less obvious, according to Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman.

When you learn you’ll be negotiating with someone from a different culture, that person’s culture becomes the most salient aspect about her, especially if the culture is unfamiliar to you. Yet many experts believe individual differences play just as important a role in negotiation as cultural differences.

By focusing on cultural differences, negotiators risk treating their counterparts as cultural ambassadors rather than unique, multifaceted human beings. When both sides are stuck in this trap, it becomes all the more difficult to reach common ground.

Related Article: Coping With Culture at the Bargaining Table

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