Adapting to Your Counterpart’s Style

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Negotiating with Chameleons,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, April 2007.

Like the title character in Woody Allen’s movie Zelig, some people smoothly adopt the manner and attitudes of those around them. Due to the lengths such chameleons go to alter their behavior, contemporary psychologists have dubbed them high “self-monitors.”

Whether you think of self-monitors as nimble or two-faced, the ability to blend in to one’s surroundings may be more helpful to women than men in mixed gender settings, including negotiation, according to studies by Columbia Business School professors Francis Flynn and Daniel Ames.

In one study, classmate participants first completed a self-assessment that asked them to rate their ability to read other people’s emotions and to alter their own behavior in order to be perceived favorably. Then, after participating in a long-term class project, group members rated one another’s persuasiveness and ability to steer the group favorably and resolve conflict. High self-monitoring women were judged significantly more influential than low self-monitoring women.

In a second study, Flynn and Ames found that high self-monitoring women outperformed women who didn’t see themselves as especially adaptive. In one negotiation experiment, the high self-monitoring men actually underperformed low-self-monitoring men.

Flynn and Ames interpret these results to suggest that self-monitoring may be helpful to women in social settings that are gendered-that is, where certain behaviors (such as competitiveness in negotiation) are viewed as masculine traits. Women who can read their counterparts and adapt to them thus may be better able to counter gender stereotypes, such as being vulnerable to pressure tactics.

The researchers themselves were perplexed about why self-monitoring seemed to hamper men’s effectiveness. They allow that their pool of participants may somehow have been atypical in this regard, but also speculate that if male self-monitors mimic the behavior of cooperative women, these men may surrender whatever advantage would come from more aggressive behavior.

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