Q: Because of the nature of my business, I regularly engage in negotiations across cultures—and the results can be disappointing. After recently losing an important deal in India, I learned that my counterpart felt I was rushing through our talks. I thought I was just being efficient with our time. How can I improve my cross-cultural negotiation skills?
A: Before you despair, it may help to know that you are not alone. Research shows that dealmaking across cultures tends to lead to worse outcomes as compared with negotiations conducted within the same culture. This is primarily because cultures are characterized by different behaviors, communication styles, and norms. As a result, when negotiating across cultures, we bring different perspectives to the bargaining table, which in turn may result in potential misunderstandings and a lower likelihood of exploring and discovering integrative solutions.
Cultural misunderstandings tend to occur for two main reasons. First, when confronting cultural differences, we tend to rely on stereotypes. Stereotypes are often pejorative (for example: Italians always run late), and they can lead to distorted expectations about your counterpart’s behavior as well as potentially costly misinterpretations.
Improving Cross-Cultural Negotiation Skills
Instead of relying on stereotypes, try to focus on prototypes—cultural averages on dimensions of behavior or values. For example, it is commonly understood that Japanese negotiators tend to have more silent periods during their talks than, say, Brazilians. That said, there is still a great deal of variability within each culture—meaning that some Brazilians speak less than some Japanese do. Thus, it would be a mistake to expect a Japanese negotiator you have never met to be reserved. But if it turns out that a negotiator is especially quiet, you might better understand her behavior in light of the prototype. In addition, awareness of your own cultural prototypes can help you anticipate how your counterpart might interpret your bargaining behavior.
A second common reason for cross-cultural misunderstandings is that we tend to interpret others’ behaviors, values, and beliefs through the lens of our own culture. To overcome this tendency, we need to learn about the other party’s culture. This means not only researching the customs and behaviors of different cultures but also understanding why people follow these customs and exhibit these behaviors in the first place.
Just as important, not only do countries have unique cultures, but teams and organizations do, too. Before any negotiation, take time to study the context and the person on the other side of the bargaining table, including the various cultures to which he belongs, whether the culture of France, the culture of engineering, or his particular company’s corporate culture.
In your case, you learned after the fact that your Indian counterpart would have appreciated a slower pace with more opportunities for relationship building. You seem to have run into the second issue we just discussed: Using time efficiently in the course of negotiations is generally valued in the United States, but in India, there is often a greater focus on building relationships early in the process.
As you have observed, cultural differences can represent barriers to reaching an agreement in negotiation. But remember that differences also can be opportunities to create valuable agreements. This suggests that cross-cultural negotiations may be particularly rife with opportunities for you and your counterpart to capitalize on different preferences, priorities, beliefs, and values.
What cross-cultural negotiation skills have you learned and would like to share? Leave a comment below.