Negotiating with Difficult Personalities and “Dark” Personality Traits

Research illuminates challenges of negotiating with difficult personalities, and the performance of people with “dark” personality traits at the bargaining table.

By — on / Dealing with Difficult People

Negotiating with Difficult Personalities

Have you ever found yourself negotiating with difficult personalities, or negotiating with someone who seemed entirely ruthless and lacking in empathy? From time to time, we may end up in the deeply unsettling position of negotiating with someone who appears to have no concern for us or our outcomes.

People who are antisocial, lack empathy, and habitually engage in impulsive, manipulative, and even cruel behavior are believed to make up just 1% of the general population. (Psychologists refer to such people as psychopaths. We’re largely avoiding this term because in popular culture, the term psychopath has become associated almost exclusively with violent criminals. In fact, the vast majority of people who score high on psychopathy are not violent and do not engage in criminal behavior.)

Yet some experts have argued that people with such antisocial personalities could be more prevalent in the business world than in other fields.

“Without the inhibiting effect of a conscience,” writes Middlesex University Business School professor Clive Roland Boddy in the journal Management Decision, such people are able to “ruthlessly charm, lie, cajole and manipulate their way up an organizational hierarchy in pursuit of their main aims of power, wealth and status and at the expense of anyone who gets in their way.” Furthermore, people with such personalities often are driven by the desire for control, dominance, and prestige—qualities that tend to be valued and rewarded by many corporations, notes University of California at Davis professor Robert Emmons.

Claim your FREE copy: Dealing with Difficult People

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Until now, little has been known about how people with such personality traits, or with the other two so-called dark personalities, Machiavellianism and narcissism, negotiate. (People scoring high on Machiavellianism are ruthlessly and selfishly concerned with personal gain. Those scoring high on narcissism tend to be self-absorbed and view themselves as better than others.) However, several articles in the journal Personality and Individual Differences reached some preliminary conclusions about how individuals who score high on what psychologists refer to as the dark triad—psychopathic personality, Machiavellianism, and narcissism—negotiate. The findings could provide defensive advice for those who are negotiating with difficult personalities.

When Negotiating with Difficult Personalities, a Selfish Orientation Has Advantages and Disadvantages

People with ruthless, antisocial personalities may perform better at some types of negotiation, but at others they are at a distinct disadvantage, Leanne ten Brinke of the University of California, Berkeley, and her University of British Columbia coauthors Pamela J. Black, Stephen Porter, and Dana R. Carney found in a 2015 study.

The researchers paired undergraduate students in a business class and had them engage in a negotiation simulation involving the sale of a family business where the potential existed to both claim and jointly create value. Two months after they negotiated, as part of a class assignment on understanding one’s personality, the students completed an online survey that assessed their dark-triad personality traits using measures well validated in previous research.

Those who scored high on psychopathy (but not Machiavellianism or narcissism) claimed more value in their negotiations than those who scored lower on the trait. However, those with psychopathic personality traits were less effective than others at creating value. These results canceled each other out: those with psychopathic traits performed similarly to the other negotiators overall. (Pairs of negotiators scoring higher on psychopathic traits reached slightly worse overall outcomes than pairs scoring lower on these traits, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant.)

Thus, individuals with ruthless, antisocial personalities appear to behave as selfishly at the bargaining table as we might expect. Though their competitive orientation may not hurt them in the short run, it could become an impediment to them and their counterparts over the long term if it prevents trusting, reciprocal relationships from developing. When negotiating with competitive parties who seem unconcerned about your outcomes, highlight what they personally stand to gain from behaving more collaboratively.

An Online Advantage When Negotiating with Difficult Personalities

In another study, University of British Columbia researchers Lisa Crossley, Michael Woodworth, Pamela J. Black, and Robert Hare looked at whether people who score high on psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism perform better, relative to themselves and others, when negotiating face to face or online. The team assessed participants’ personalities and then paired them and had them engage in a hypothetical negotiation over concert tickets, either in person or using a computer chat feature. The negotiation was purely competitive, with no opportunities to create value.

The results showed that those scoring high on the dark-triad personality traits performed significantly better when negotiating face to face than when negotiating online. When they negotiated via computer, they reached worse results than other negotiators. Notably, negotiators doing business online lack the rich verbal and nonverbal cues—from gestures to tone of voice to eye contact—that can help them influence their counterparts. Such cues may be particularly crucial to those scoring high on the dark personality traits, since they rely heavily on their ability to charm, manipulate, and intimidate others.

Thus, if you have strong reason to believe that a counterpart typifies one of these three dark traits, you might be able to reduce your odds of being manipulated or intimidated by negotiating online, particularly in competitive onetime bargaining situations.

A final note: Negotiators often err in assuming that their counterparts are irrational. More often than not, the other party is simply facing constraints or stresses that are causing his behavior to seem irrational. Before playing armchair psychologist, give the other party the benefit of the doubt by asking questions aimed at determining whether some unseen pressure could explain his behavior.

 The Narcissistic Negotiator

Narcissism is on the rise, psychologists tell us. Is society’s collective increase in self-regard affecting how we behave at the negotiating table?

In a 2015 study by University of Richmond professor Dejun Tony Kong, undergraduates paired up and engaged in a negotiation simulation. After negotiating, those who scored high on narcissism on a personality test rated their negotiating partners as significantly less competent than did those who scored lower on narcissism. However, despite their dismissive attitudes toward their partners, those with narcissistic tendencies did not actually perform better than their counterparts in the negotiation.

As compared with other negotiators, those with narcissistic tendencies also viewed their counterparts as less benevolent; consequently, they trusted them less. Somewhat ironically, however, their counterparts viewed the narcissistic negotiators as more benevolent and thus more trustworthy than others.

In their drive to bolster their self-image, narcissists constantly compare themselves with others and find ways to view themselves as superior. This tendency appears to lead them to a distorted view of their negotiating skills and a suspicious attitude that could worsen their outcomes, whether they recognize it or not.

Have you negotiated with difficult people? What was the outcome?

Adapted from the article “Negotiating with the Most Difficult People of All” in the June 2016 issue of Negotiation Briefings, the Program on Negotiation’s monthly newsletter of advice for professional negotiators. 

Claim your FREE copy: Dealing with Difficult People

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
501 Pound Hall
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
tel 1-800-391-8629
tel (if calling from outside the U.S.) +1-301-528-2676
fax 617-495-7818