Honor Your Fellow Negotiator

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Negotiators: Guard Against Ethical Lapses,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

During the past couple of years, a number of scandalous stories involving unethical behavior made headlines: Countrywide’s and AIG’s risky business practices, trader Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged attempt to sell a U.S. Senate seat. As instances of people behaving badly proliferate, some commentators have wondered if we are experiencing an epidemic of immorality.

Madoff and Blagojevich seem to represent extreme cases on the fringes of human behavior—a couple of very bad apples. In fact, new psychological research suggests that most of us experience ethical lapses under certain conditions. But rather than knowingly causing harm, as Madoff did, we are more likely to unintentionally violate our own moral code.

In negotiation, even minor instances of immoral behavior could damage your reputation and your organization’s as well. Few of us set out to behave badly. Yet when given an opportunity to cheat, many people will take it, researchers Lisa L. Shu, Max H. Bazerman and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School found in recent research.

In one study, Shu and colleagues asked college students to solve math puzzles for money. Some of the students were given an opportunity to cheat—they could grade their own work and take more money than they’d earned with no consequences. In addition, certain participants were asked to read a university honor code before completing the task.

Not only did some participants choose to cheat when given the chance, but they also justified their cheating in questionnaires they filled out after the study. Students who read the honor code were less likely to cheat than those who didn’t read it. Those who did cheat after reading the honor code were less able to remember details about the honor code when the experiment was over, a phenomenon that Shu and colleagues call motivated forgetting.

In a follow-up study, some participants not only read the honor code but signed it to indicate their compliance. Almost none of these participants cheated. Although the studies demonstrate “the pervasive dishonesty of ordinary people,” according to the researchers, they also show that presenting decision makers with a moral code greatly improves their ethical behavior.

Applying these findings to negotiation, you might open talks by discussing your intention to behave fairly and honestly and then ask your counterpart to do the same. When trust is a special concern, you might even write an honor code for interested parties to sign. Making ethics salient in your negotiation could curb the temptation to deceive.

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