Trusting from Square One

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “How Much Should You Trust?” by Iris Bohnet (professor, Harvard Kennedy School) and Stephan Meier (professor, Columbia Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

What’s the best way to cope with a fellow negotiator who has betrayed your trust? Ignoring the problem is rarely the best solution.

When you distrust someone, you’re forced to design trustworthy systems to police her. A supervisor could use incentives and other control mechanisms to ensure that an employee complies with office policies. Similarly, in the absence of trust, patients, clients, and company boards must design detailed contracts to make sure that doctors, attorneys, and managers follow the rules.

But be aware that adding security and control can harm your relationship with the other side; research suggests that your counterpart may interpret even small signs of distrust as major transgressions. If you feel you can no longer trust your fellow negotiator, you’d be wise to withdraw all trust and start over from scratch, putting control systems in place and allowing trust to build incrementally.

Clearly, it’s a shame when you have to resort to the “risk-free” option of distrusting your fellow negotiators altogether. After all, integrative deals—those in which parties not only distribute value but create new value through mutually beneficial tradeoffs—are only possible if parties trust each other, at least to some degree. Thus, when you meet a potential business partner, make trust building your first objective, and don’t enter substantive negotiations until you’ve established a trusting relationship.

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