Dear Negotiation Coach: The Case for Backing Down

By on / Dealing with Difficult People

QUESTION

I have pushed pretty hard in salary negotiations for a job with a new company. In my last discussion with the HR person, he presented some convincing evidence suggesting that the high figure I tried to justify is off the mark. Given how hard I pushed for the higher salary, I am hesitant to back down at this point. Wouldn’t doing so make me look bad?

ANSWER

A: Most of us share the concern that others will judge us negatively if we change our minds after arguing for a certain issue. From politics to business to our personal lives, we stick to our core arguments and refuse to back down even when faced with good evidence that we’re wrong.

This reluctance has at least two bases. First, we have a tendency to escalate commitment to our decisions, even poor ones, for fear of “wasting” our past investments of time, money, and other resources. Second, we have an aversion to making inconsistent arguments across time. In our popular culture, people who change their minds are often called “flip-floppers” and “wafflers,” pejorative labels. During the 2004 U.S. presidential election campaign, for example, Democratic candidate John Kerry was frequently criticized for changing his mind, as highlighted by his infamous statement regarding the Iraq War: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [appropriation for military operations] before I voted against it.” Many Democratic and Republican analysts agreed that Kerry’s perceived equivocation contributed to his election loss.

There’s a notion that those who change their minds lack conviction, are less competent, and are less trustworthy than those who stand their ground. And yet, my new research with Martha Jeong and Leslie K. John (both of Harvard Business School) and Laura Huang (of the Wharton School) suggests that this intuition is mistaken. In fact, we find that a particular form of backing down—namely, changing one’s mind when faced with contradictory information—is not necessarily a bad thing.

In one of our studies, we analyzed transcripts from an actual entrepreneurial pitch competition held in the United States. In the competition, entrepreneurs made four- to five-minute pitches to investors for start-up funding, followed by three minutes of Q&A with the investors. The investors judged the quality of the ideas and their investment potential on the basis of the pitches and Q&As, then awarded investment money to the winners. From the transcripts, we identified instances where entrepreneurs backed down after being challenged by investors. The results showed that entrepreneurs who backed down were more likely to be assessed positively by investors and reap benefits as compared to those who did not. Contrary to the popular belief that entrepreneurs can most positively influence investor decision making by signaling confidence, willingness to back down in the face of challenging information resulted in more positive investor evaluations.
In a series of follow-up lab studies, we created situations in which decision makers argued for a certain course of action and then received information indicating that it may be the wrong one. Though the decision makers believed that changing their minds would be interpreted as a signal of bad judgment, third-party observers evaluated actors more positively when they changed their minds than when they did not. Those who backed down were perceived as having better judgment but less confidence than individuals who didn’t. Consequently, the observers were more interested in working in the future with those who backed down, including in negotiations. The willingness to admit one is wrong may be particularly valued in negotiation, where having sound judgment is more critical to success than displaying confidence.

For your future negotiations, I advise you to seek out unbiased information, including data that might go against your views, so that you can avoid being presented with contradictory information and having to decide whether to back down. In your current negotiation, don’t worry too much about sending the wrong signal by changing your mind. You may lose some confidence points in the eyes of the HR person, but you’ll come across as having sound judgment—a quality that is probably critical in your new job.

Francesca Gino
Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School
Author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013)

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