Managing Cultural Differences in Negotiation

By looking beyond stereotypes, you can be better at managing cultural differences in international negotiations

By — on / International Negotiation

managing cultural differences

Imagine that you’re about to engage in an international negotiation with someone from a different culture. How would you go about it? In all likelihood, you would focus on managing cultural differences by studying the other party’s culture, customs, and tendencies. You might try to answer questions such as, Should I bow upon meeting my counterpart? Should I bring a gift? Should we meet over dinner and get to know each other, or get right down to business? What is considered rude in their culture, that is acceptable in mine?

It’s important to educate yourself about your counterpart’s culture so that you don’t risk offending her or seeming unprepared. At the same time, it would be a mistake to focus too narrowly when preparing for cross-cultural communication in business. Research on international negotiation can help us think more broadly when it comes to managing cultural differences.

Putting Too Much Stock in Stereotypes

One common risk of studying up on a counterpart’s culture is that it can lead us to expect that person to behave like a walking, talking stereotype. For example, relying on stereotypes gleaned from international negotiation how-to books, you might expect your German counterpart to be exceedingly rigid and punctual. Or you might expect a Mexican negotiator to communicate expressively and devote a lot of time to rapport-building.

Such stereotypes may or may not turn out to apply to any given individual. Moreover, our culture is just one contributor to our identity and behavior. Our profession, personal history, ingrained personality, and experiences also define who we are and how we negotiate. Yet we tend to focus on an unfamiliar counterpart’s culture because it is often her or his most obvious feature. International conflict and misunderstanding can be the inevitable result, and you want to make sure you are able to manage cultural differences if you ever want to get anywhere in negotiations.

Culture and Confusion

In fact, negotiators tend to over-rely on stereotypes when managing cultural differences in international negotiation, to their detriment, University of Waterloo professor Wendi L. Adair and her colleagues have found. In a study of American and Japanese negotiators, the researchers found that study participants typically adjusted their negotiating style too far toward the other party’s culture. That is, they expected their counterpart to negotiate as they imagine he would at home, not anticipating that he would likely try to adjust to the foreign context as well. Ironically, this mutual adjustment led to cultural clashes when negotiators were trying to share information and persuade one another.

To take an example, suppose that a Brazilian and a German are about to negotiate. From her research, the Brazilian may expect that the German will want to immediately get down to business. Meanwhile, from his research, the German may think that the Brazilian will want to spend some time building rapport. If the Brazilian tries to hurry the talks along to meet what she perceives to be the German’s expectations, the German may feel rebuffed and disappointed. 

Moving Beyond Stereotypes to Managing Cultural Differences

Here are three guidelines for managing cultural differences and reducing cultural barriers to negotiation:

  1. Research the whole person. In addition to learning about a negotiating partner’s culture, try to get to know him as an individual. Where has he worked? What are his skills? What is his reputation like as a negotiator? You might answer such questions by consulting his LinkedIn profile, speaking with people in your network or his, and getting to know him over the phone or in person. You’ll probably discover that your counterpart has been formed just as much or more by his personality, experience, and profession as by his nationality.
  2. Negotiate like a diplomat. To look further beyond stereotypes, consider the broader context of your negotiation. Harvard Business School Max H. Bazerman notes that this is a core skill of experienced diplomats. Thinking several steps ahead, diplomats tend to consider broad issues related to a negotiation, such as the changing politics and laws of a region, the likely response of community groups and activists to your decisions, and so on, Bazerman has observed. All of us can practice thinking broadly in international negotiation—and move beyond stereotypes in the process.
  3. Take the pressure off. Interestingly, negotiators are more likely to adhere to cultural stereotypes when facing demands on their attention, including time pressure, Columbia University professor Michael W. Morris has found. In one study, for example, American participants facing time pressure were more likely than participants from Hong Kong to blame the individual rather than the situation for a problem—an American negotiating bias. Unfortunately, when we resort to stereotypical behavior, careful analysis tends to fall by the wayside. To encourage deeper thinking, lessen the stress surrounding your negotiation by taking frequent breaks, getting to know one another, and making sure deadlines aren’t too tight.

What other advice do you have for managing cultural differences in negotiation?

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