Dear Negotiation Coach: Faltering by “paltering”

By on / Dealmaking

Q: As an HR manager, I struggle with the issue of how open and transparent to be during hiring negotiations. Sometimes, for example, I have only one worthy candidate for a position. Naturally, I would prefer not to share this fact because the candidate might use it to gain an edge. In cases like this, I have sometimes implied that the candidate has serious competition. I am wondering whether the experts consider this type of fudging to be permissible.

A: Because negotiators can often get ahead by misleading their counterparts, deception poses a serious challenge in negotiation.

Deception in negotiation can take many forms, ranging from outright lies to half-truths. My colleagues and I have studied the type of deception you describe, which is called paltering—the active use of truthful statements to convey a mistaken impression.

In a negotiation such as the one you describe, paltering would involve saying something like this to the sole worthy job candidate: “After advertising this position in three trade magazines, we received 100 résumés. My assistant narrowed these down to a short list of 10, each of whom seemed to have excellent credentials and relevant experience. I interviewed each of them.” These statements are technically truthful, but they convey the false impression that other qualified candidates could fill the position, when in fact you do not believe this to be the case.

By contrast, an outright lie would involve a blatantly untruthful statement, such as “There are five other qualified candidates who I believe could fill this position.” Another deceptive choice would be to omit relevant information from the discussion. For example, you might be silent about whether alternative candidates are available, which could lead the candidate to form a mistaken impression on her own.

Like outright lies, paltering is an active form of deception. However, negotiators who lie outright are different from those who engage in paltering. Negotiators who succumb to the temptation to lie often feel guilty and anxious about having sacrificed their self-image as honest people. By contrast, “palterers” tend to be able to maintain a self-image as honest and trustworthy (after all, their paltering was truthful), and they generally do not experience these negative concerns and emotions. As a result, they use paltering frequently and effectively, to the detriment of their counterparts.

My colleagues and I have examined both the short- and long-term consequences of paltering. The participants in our studies engage in a simulated distributive negotiation with another party; we ask some to palter in response to questions about an issue that they’d rather avoid discussing and others to answer such questions truthfully.

We find that paltering can help negotiators claim value in distributive negotiations, but at a significant cost. Paltering increases the odds of impasse and poses a serious risk to one’s reputation. Negotiators tend to readily justify their use of paltering as benign, but the targets of paltering judge it to be dishonest.

When considering whether to mislead our counterparts at the bargaining table, we tend to forget a likely possibility: Once negotiations conclude, targets of deception often learn new information that reveals our falsehoods. Like other forms of revealed deception, revealed paltering harms interpersonal relationships and trust. Instead of paltering, stress the positive aspects of the job, discuss how it fulfills the candidate’s needs, and try to get the employment relationship off to a good start.

Francesca Gino
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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