Emotional Leadership Can Have a Silver Lining in Negotiation

Research suggests that business negotiators are sometimes rewarded for emotional leadership and vulnerability.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

emotional leadership

The negotiations that surrounded the 1962 Cuban missile crisis were some of the most tense and frightening in world history, and provide a high-profile example of emotional leadership. Having learned that the Soviet Union had deployed ballistic missiles to Cuba, the United States orchestrated a military naval blockade to prevent the Soviets from delivering more missiles to its strategic partner. Over the course of 13 days, U.S. and Soviet leaders struggled to find a way to protect their interests, save face, and avert catastrophe.

At the peak of the crisis, U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s brother and close aide, Robert F. Kennedy, confided in Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, that the young U.S. president was fearful he might be steamrolled by his own military, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev recalled in a 1970 article he wrote for Time magazine.

“I haven’t seen my children for days now, and the president hasn’t seen his either,” Khrushchev reported Robert Kennedy as saying during a later discussion with Dobrynin. “I don’t know how much longer we can hold out against our generals.” According to Khrushchev, Kennedy, overwhelmed by stress and exhaustion, was “almost crying.”

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How emotional leadership may have averted disaster

Kennedy’s message and emotional leadership motivated Khrushchev to abruptly switch his negotiating strategy from confrontation to conciliation. “We could see that we had to reorient our position swiftly,” he wrote in Time.

“We sent the Americans a note saying we agreed to remove our missiles and bombers” in exchange for a public statement from President Kennedy that the United States would not invade Cuba. After further negotiations, the standoff came to a peaceful conclusion.

In negotiation, we tend to believe we should hide strong emotions such as sadness for fear of appearing weak and giving our counterpart an advantage. But research supports what this anecdote from the Cuban missile crisis suggests: Under certain conditions, emotional leadership, including sadness can actually improve negotiators’ outcomes rather than hurt them.

A sadness advantage?

In a series of three experiments, Professor Marwan Sinaceur of the ESSEC Business School in France and his colleagues had hundreds of pairs of graduate students engage in negotiation simulations where one party was guided to express sadness, anger, or no emotion at all.

In one experiment, negotiators who perceived their counterpart as having low power (because of his/her dire financial straits and lack of alternatives to the current negotiation) granted greater concessions to counterparts who expressed sadness than to those whose emotions seemed neutral. However, sad-seeming negotiators who were described as being powerful (that is, as financially healthy and having excellent outside alternatives) did not gain a bargaining advantage over those who appeared neutral. Similarly, negotiators who were told they could anticipate many future business opportunities with their counterpart conceded more to sad negotiators than to neutral negotiators; that difference faded when participants were told that the negotiation was a one-shot deal.

In another experiment, negotiators who expressed sadness claimed more value than neutral-seeming negotiators when their partners were led to view the negotiation as collaborative rather than purely transactional. And in a third experiment, negotiators who appeared sad reached better outcomes than those who appeared angry, but only when their counterparts were motivated to be concerned about them.

The nuances of sadness in negotiation

Overall, participants were particularly concessionary toward sad negotiators (relative to neutral or angry negotiators), Sinaceur and his colleagues found, but only when they had a motivation to be concerned about their counterpart—for example, due to their belief in the counterpart’s powerlessness or their incentives to build a long-term relationship with the counterpart.

These findings support other research showing that sadness signals a need for help. Thus, when negotiators already have a reason to feel concerned about their counterpart, they are likely to be more willing to extend a hand—by making a concession—than they normally would.

This doesn’t mean that sadness is a state to aspire to in negotiation. As compared with being in a neutral mood, being sad increases our likelihood of selling possessions for lower prices, purchasing new possessions for higher prices, and fixating on initial offers, Harvard Kennedy School professor Jennifer Lerner has found in her research.

The wisest course may be to take a break when you feel overwhelmed by strong feelings of sadness during a negotiation. At times, however, we may need to plow through negotiations even in the midst of sadness, as when bargaining over a severance package or ending a business partnership or romantic relationship. In such circumstances, we can at least take comfort in the knowledge that our sadness, by exposing our vulnerabilities, could trigger an unexpected act of benevolence.

A final note: For both strategic and ethical reasons, it would be a mistake to invent sob stories when a negotiation isn’t going your way. False emotions have been found to be less effective than genuine emotional leadership in negotiation. And negotiators who gain a reputation for being inauthentic may soon find themselves not only morally compromised but also lacking negotiating partners.

What examples of emotional leadership in negotiation have you seen in practice?

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