Coke vs. Pepsi. Clinton vs. Trump. Apple vs. Samsung. The New York Yankees vs. the Boston Red Sox.
Whether we work in business, politics, sports, or another arena, our competitors sometimes turn into fierce rivals. In addition, many sales, legal, and financial firms structure jobs, incentives, and promotion systems in ways that pit employees against one another to increase their motivation.
What happens when rivals negotiate with each other? Are hardball tactics in negotiation more common? Do pairs of rivals reach different outcomes than more traditional pairs of competitors? In a 2016 Academy of Management Journal article, New York University professor Gavin J. Kilduff and his colleagues Adam D. Galinsky, Edoardo Gallo, and J. James Reade examined these questions and reached conclusions that might alter your negotiation practices, including the use of hardball negotiation tactics.
Features of Rivalries
Several factors explain why relationships between competitors sometimes escalate into rivalry, according to Kilduff and his team. First, similarities between competitors (such as Coke and Pepsi) can encourage comparisons that foster rivalry. Second, competitors who repeatedly square off may develop stronger feelings of rivalry toward one another over time. Third, when competitions between rivals result in close outcomes, they anticipate similarly tight competitions in the future, and their rivalry intensifies.
Rivalry increases the psychological stakes of a competition, and we are more motivated and perform better when competing against rivals as compared to nonrivals. For example, Kilduff found in a 2014 study that long-distance runners ran faster in races that included their rivals.
The Dark Side of Rivalry
In their 2016 study, Kilduff and his colleagues identified a hidden pitfall of rivalry—namely, its tendency to increase hardball tactics in negotiation, including unethical behavior.
In one experiment conducted online, Kilduff and his team told 101 participants that they would be paired for a negotiation simulation with another participant. (In fact, there were no counterparts, and the study ended before any negotiation began.) Participants were told they would be playing the role of a car dealer negotiating the sale of used equipment to a competing car dealer in the same town. About half of the participants received instructions that portrayed their counterpart as a longtime business rival; the other half were told that the counterpart ran a new business and was not yet a direct competitor.
All the participants were told that they had a low offer of $25,000 from another party to buy the equipment, which they had purchased for $75,000. They were asked how they would communicate information about the other offer to their competitor in the negotiation. Among the participants, 56% in the rivalry condition said they would deceive their counterpart about the offer to gain an advantage, as compared to only 33% of those in the nonrivalry condition. In particular, those who believed that they would face a rival indicated being far more likely to lie indirectly—for example, by exaggerating the offer’s quality (“very good”) without mentioning a numerical value—as compared to those who thought they’d face a nonrival.
In a similar experiment, participants reported being more willing to engage in hardball tactics in negotiation, such as making false promises or intentionally misleading the other side, with rivals than with nonrivals. The prospect of negotiating with a rival heightened participants’ concerns about maintaining their sense of self-worth and status in negotiation. In turn, these concerns seemed to lead participants to focus so narrowly on performing well that they were willing to cut ethical corners to do so.
Promoting More Ethical Negotiations
- Avoid promoting fierce competition between employees for prizes such as bonuses and promotions. The rivalries that result may increase motivation, but they can also backfire by encouraging unethical behavior.
- To maintain high ethical standards in external negotiations, don’t encourage employees to view competing firms and their employees as rivals. Emphasize the value of finding opportunities to cooperate as well as compete with their negotiating counterparts rather than assuming that the task involves handling difficult people.
- To protect their own decisions in negotiation from being eroded by rivalry, managers should augment intuitive decision making with algorithms and other objective sources of data.
What other strategies do you use to reduce the use of hardball tactics in negotiation?