Dear Negotiation Coach: Am I Using Deceptive Tactics in Negotiation?

It's easier and more common to use deceptive tactics in negotiation than many of us realize.

By PON Staffon / Dealmaking

deceptive tactics in negotiation

Ethical negotiators try not to use deceptive tactics in negotiation situations. However, there’s one negotiation technique that may not feel deceptive, but it can slip under the radar and cause problems later. We spoke with Francesca Gino, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration, Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School. We asked her to clarify what makes a negotiation tactic deceptive even if that’s not the intent.

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Many HR managers struggle with the issue of how open and transparent to be during hiring negotiations, especially if there’s only one worthy candidate for a position. Naturally, there’s a concern that sharing that fact could give the candidate an edge in negotiations. In these situations, is it permissible to imply that the candidate has serious competition?

Francesca Gino: Because negotiators can often get ahead by misleading their counterparts, deceptive tactics in negotiation pose a serious challenge.

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.” Other deceptive tactics in negotiation situations like this 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 these deceptive tactics in negotiation. 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 these deceptive tactics in negotiation 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.

Have you encountered paltering at the negotiation table? Would you agree or disagree that this is a deceptive tactic?

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Discover how to boost your power at the bargaining table in this FREE special report, Dealmaking: Secrets of Successful Dealmaking in Business Negotiations, from Harvard Law School.