Ask A Negotiation Expert: To Trust or Not To Trust?

By on / Negotiation Skills

When choosing new business partners, we size them up to decide whether they are trustworthy. Interestingly, the way in which we make such determinations depends a great deal on our nationalculture, Jeanne Brett, the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution andOrganizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Louisiana State University professor Tyree Mitchell found in a new study. We spoke to Brett, the author of Negotiating Globally: How to Negotiate Deals, Resolve Disputes, and Make Decisions Across Cultural Boundaries (Jossey-Bass, 2001), about the implications of the study’s findings for negotiators.

Negotiation Briefings: How do negotiators assess whether to trust a potential new partner?

Jeanne Brett: Some negotiators do a lot of work away from the negotiation table, typically before it begins, gathering information about the potential partner and the organization he or she represents. Some negotiators seek introductions to the potential partner from trusted third parties. Others prefer to rely on their own assessment of the potential partner before or during the negotiation itself rather than relying on what others say about him or her. Negotiators in all cultures use small talk about sports, weather, travel, and sometimes even politics to find common ground and assess trust. For some negotiators, common ground—for example, discovering that both negotiators have daughters who play soccer—is a strong foundation on which to begin building a relationship. For others, such discoveries are nice but not necessary.

NB: What were some of the findings to emerge from your study?

JB: It was no surprise that trust in negotiation varied systematically by culture. In my research from 2017 with Brian Gunia (Johns Hopkins University) and Brosh Teucher (St. Michael’s College), World Values Survey data showed clear regional differences in interpersonal trust. Negotiation is a social context in which trust is very important, so in this new research, Tyree Mitchell and I expected, and certainly found, parallels between cultural levels of interpersonal trust and individual negotiators’ level of trust. Specifically, we found that interviewees from the West tended to be very trusting of new potential business partners. Trust was also moderately high in East Asia. It was low in the Middle East and South Asia, and very low in Latin America.

Trust begets trust, so starting off with the assumption that a potential partner is trustworthy has a good chance of paying off. In line with their trusting nature, our interviewees from Western nations (such as Germany, Italy, and the United States) tended to plunge directly into negotiations.

Our interviewees from Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Latin American nations (including Kuwait,
India, Mexico, and Brazil), who were less trusting than those from the West, reported being more likely to spend time getting to know their counterparts away from the negotiating table before plunging into substantive talks.

Many of our interviewees from East Asia (for example, China and Japan) reported that they were concerned about not only assessing their potential partner’s trustworthiness but also determining whether the potential partner could actually do the work required. This finding, which reflects the common tendency to avoid saying no in these cultures, sheds light on what may seem to Westerners like an overly prolonged focus on past accomplishments when negotiating with East Asians.

NB: How can negotiators apply these findings to their own negotiations?

JB: There are three clear benefits to learning about intracultural norms when negotiating globally. First, when you observe the behavior you’ve learned about, you can identify that it is cultural.

Second, when you can label behavior as cultural and match it with some explanatory cultural insights, you can often make adjustments and keep the cultural behavior from interfering with the developing negotiation relationship.

Third, if you know what is normative culturally for your counterpart, you can arrive prepared to engage with that behavior in a manner that preserves your own integrity and is respectful to the other party.

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