In Negotiation, Display Anger with Caution

By on / Negotiation Skills

Virtually all of us experience feelings of anger from time to time during our negotiations. Past research findings reassured business negotiators that their displays of anger could benefit them by conveying toughness and motivating their counterparts to make concessions. But a new research study by professors Hajo Adam of Rice University and Jeanne M. Brett of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management suggests anger may be beneficial in fewer negotiation situations than was previously believed.

In two experiments, the researchers had participants engage in an online negotiation simulation. Unbeknownst to the participants, they did not negotiate with a real person; rather, they received preprogrammed statements and responses. The researchers varied whether the context of the negotiation was primarily competitive, primarily cooperative, or a balance between the two.

In one of the experiments, for example, participants played the role of a chef who was negotiating with a small-business entrepreneur to (1) set up a new catering business together (a situation described as cooperative), (2) dissolve a catering business they had set up together by dividing assets (a competitive situation), or (3) negotiate the sale of the jointly formed business to the entrepreneur (a situation with opportunities for both cooperation and competition). During the negotiation, the computer-programmed counterpart expressed anger when making offers in the anger condition (for example, “This is really getting on my nerves”) and did not express anger when making the same offers in the no-anger condition.

The results of both experiments showed that when participants were focused primarily on either competing or cooperating, they did not make greater concessions to a counterpart who expressed anger than to a counterpart who did not.

However, when the situation involved both cooperation and competition, their counterpart’s display of anger motivated participants to make greater concessions to angry as compared with neutral counterparts. The researchers determined that when negotiators expect bargaining to be cooperative, they view anger displays as hostile rather than tough, which leads them to feel hostile in return and retaliate; the same is true when they expect negotiations to be competitive. In contrast, when negotiators expect both cooperation and competition, they are less certain about the motives behind a counterpart’s anger and more likely to interpret it as an appropriate sign of toughness, and thus respond with concessions.

Based on their results, Adam and Brett conclude that the range of situations in which anger will benefit negotiators is much smaller than previously believed. Rather than trying to capitalize on our anger or feign anger, they advise, we should assume that showing anger will not be a very effective negotiation tactic, particularly because it can be difficult to predict the degree to which our counterparts will view the negotiation as cooperative or competitive.

Resource: “Context Matters: The Social Effects of Anger in Cooperative, Balanced, and Competitive Negotiation Situations,” by Hajo Adam and Jeanne M. Brett. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2015.

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