We might hope that when we adopt effective negotiation strategies—such as spending lots of time preparing and asking questions at the table—we would achieve consistently strong results in our negotiations. Yet as most of us have experienced, our outcomes and personal satisfaction can vary a great deal from one negotiation to the next. Why? Likely because our own unique traits, as well as those of our counterparts, play a much bigger role in mounting an effective negotiation than we might expect, research suggests.
Individual Differences Matter
To begin with, individual differences—including differences in gender, culture, personality, intelligence, and experience—affect how we behave and what we achieve in negotiation. To take just a couple of examples, people who display anger in negotiation often claim more value than those who appear happy, while people from some Asian cultures may be more cooperative than people from some Western cultures.
How much do individual differences matter in launching an effective negotiation? In a 2008 study, Professor Hillary Anger Elfenbein of Washington University in St. Louis and her colleagues attempted to answer this critical question. They set up round-robin negotiations involving four or five people whose individual differences had been assessed in a survey. Group members negotiated in pairs until each member had negotiated with every other member. This setup allowed the researchers to assess how consistently people behave across negotiations.
The results suggest that our various traits, including our types of negotiation styles and negotiation skills, do significantly affect our outcomes: In this study, about 28% of performance variations were linked to individual differences.
Another factor that can affect how our negotiations unfold is the interpersonal dynamic that arises between us and our negotiating partner. Stated simply, we may behave differently with different negotiators due to the unique way in which our different negotiation styles, personalities, skills, backgrounds, and so on, interact.
To what extent do interpersonal dynamics influence whether we conduct an effective negotiation? Elfenbein and her colleagues wanted to answer this question by having pairs of participants negotiate round-robin style to see how consistently they would behave with each other over time. But they foresaw a problem: Each time a pair negotiated with each other, that interaction would color their next negotiation, and so on. It would be impossible for pairs to start each negotiation with a blank slate.
To try to skirt this problem, Elfenbein and her team visited the Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, which has a research area where the twins who attend can take part in various studies. Although twins obviously are not clones of each other, past research has shown that they are similar enough in traits such as personality, intelligence, and family background that they can serve as reasonable stand-ins for each other.
The research team recruited 124 same-sex pairs of twins (83% identical, 13% fraternal, and 4% unsure) and collected data on four sets of twins at a time. Specifically, they divided four sets of twins and sent them to two different tents to engage in round-robin negotiations over the hypothetical sale of furniture pieces. The negotiations were mirror images of each other: When two people were negotiating with each other, their twins were negotiating with each other. This method allowed the researchers to approximate in two negotiations the dynamic between a pair of negotiators meeting for the first time.
As the researchers had hoped, twins negotiated very similarly to each other. They also tended to find the same twin pairs to be challenging. That is, if you found a person to be a tough negotiator, odds are that your twin had the same impression of that person’s twin. Overall, the researchers calculated that the unique interpersonal dynamic between a negotiating pair accounted for as much as 42% of the variance in their results, significantly more than the 28% variance attributed to individual differences.
Striving for Consistency
The results suggest that we negotiate quite a bit differently depending on whom we’re facing—and probably less consistently than we would like. More research is needed to better predict how well we will do, given our particular traits and negotiation styles, when facing off with negotiators with the same or different traits.
The bottom line? A pair of negotiators is as unique as a pair of snowflakes: No two pairs will negotiate in exactly the same way. But across pairs of individuals with certain traits, behavioral patterns can be identified and used to better predict what will happen when we come together—and promote more effective negotiation behavior.
How consistent do you think your negotiation behavior has been in the past?