Dear Negotiation Coach: Catering to Expectations in High Stakes Conversations

Should we change our behaviors in early high stakes conversations to make a good impression on a counterpart? Maybe not.

By — on / Leadership Skills

high stakes conversations

When we meet someone for the first time, especially in high stakes conversations, we want to make a good impression. But how much should we alter our own behaviors and opinions to meet what we believe to be our counterpart’s expectations? We received just such a question recently, and spoke with Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

Q: I just received a job offer to become a senior-level manager with a well-respected consulting company. I am very excited about the opportunity and am meeting with the managing partner to negotiate various aspects of the offer, including my role and responsibilities. I’ve never met the person before and I would like to make a good impression. How can I best find information about this person’s expectations and interests so that I can try to cater to them in my upcoming discussions?

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Presenting our Best Selves in High Stakes Conversations

A: In both social and professional interactions, we all tend to focus on managing the impressions we make on others, especially those we don’t know well and in high stakes conversations, such as during a job interview or a meeting with a new client. Making a positive impression during an early encounter can help us get the job or ink the deal. People often try to make a good impression by catering to the interests and expectations of those they want to impress, as you hope to do. Catering may align or conflict with our true preferences, attitudes, and beliefs. For example, a person might cater to his boss by feigning a passion for the boss’s favorite sports team.

When catering conflicts with authenticity in early meetings, it can be problematic, my colleagues Ovul Sezer and Alison Brooks (Harvard Business School) and Laura Huang (the Wharton School) and I found in our research. Our work highlighted two important findings. First, most people believe that catering to another person’s interests and expectations is a more promising strategy for securing positive outcomes than being themselves, and they would choose to cater rather than take a more authentic approach in high stakes conversations and interpersonal first meetings.

Second, these beliefs are actually misplaced. Across different organizational contexts, we find that catering leads to worse performance than behaving authentically. Why? Because trying to anticipate and fulfill others’ preferences increases anxiety and feelings of inauthenticity. In one field study, we examined entrepreneurs’ pitches of their ideas to potential investors. We found that entrepreneurs who used an authentic approach received better evaluations from investors and were more likely to receive funding for their ideas than those who catered their pitches to the investors’ expectations and interests.

There is another important consideration to keep in mind when thinking about catering as a strategy. When catering, we must predict what the perceiver wants to hear and act accordingly, but making such predictions is difficult and commonly leads to errors and inaccuracies. Therefore, a person who uses catering can fail in at least two ways. First, he may incorrectly predict what the perceiver wants to see and hear. Second, even if he does predict what the perceiver wants to see and hear, he may enact those behaviors in an unconvincing manner because he feels inauthentic, deceitful, or anxious.

Thus, my advice to you is to spend your time preparing for the negotiation by clarifying your interests and expectations, and then thinking about the most authentic ways to discuss them. It certainly will be helpful for you to find out more about the person you’ll be meeting with, such as that person’s role and responsibilities, but don’t worry too much about his or her expectations. You’ll feel much more at ease and likely make a much better impression if you simply be yourself.

How do you prepare for high stakes conversations?

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
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