Why First Impressions Matter in Negotiation

In negotiation conversations, questions of warmth and competence are crucial.

By on / Negotiation Skills

negotiation

In negotiation, even when not based in reality, the expectation that someone is “tough” or “cooperative” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at the bargaining table. When you approach an allegedly tough competitor with suspicion and guardedness, he is likely to absorb these expectations and become more competitive.

Research shows that negotiators who were believed to be competitive (though this reputation was randomly assigned) were treated by their counterparts with suspicion. In turn, negotiators who were believed to be tough responded by acting tough; they failed to share information or to persuade the other party to make concessions. The result? Subpar outcomes for both sides.

Reputations are “sticky.” Once formed, they become fixed in people’s minds. When we get new information about the negotiator across the table, we tend to dismiss it and instead remain focused on our initial views and impressions. Research suggests that it’s easier to tarnish a good reputation (for cooperativeness) than to reform a bad reputation (for toughness).


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


All the more reason to cultivate a cooperative reputation from the start and strive to maintain it at all costs. As Shakespeare wrote in Richard II: “The purest treasure mortal times afford/ Is spotless reputation: That away,/ Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.”

Discerning Friends from Foes in Negotiation

You might be surprised to learn that warmth and competence make up a full 80% of our judgments of others.

In both personal and negotiation conversations, we perceive warmth before competence and usually weigh warmth more heavily. In certain conditions, such as hiring and promotions, however, we care more about competence than warmth, according to Amy Cuddy, social psychologist, Harvard Business School assistant professor and Program on Negotiation faculty member.

These facts make sense when viewed in light of human evolution. Like our earliest ancestors, when encountering a stranger, we try to quickly size up whether the person is a friend or foe.

That is, we ask ourselves, What are her intentions toward me?

Intentions can be judged on a continuum ranging from warm to cold.

Warmth encompasses traits such as trustworthiness, sincerity, friendliness, and kindness; coldness encompasses opposite traits, from deception to cruelty, write Cuddy and her colleagues.

After determining someone’s intentions toward us, we next assess her ability to carry them out.

That’s where competence comes in:

  • Is this person capable of harming me (or, alternatively, helping me)?
  • How skillful, creative, smart, and confident is she?

In negotiation conversations, will a counterpart react positively to your attempts to create value, or will he try to take advantage of such efforts?

If a counterpart seems to care only about his own outcomes, how capable is he of grabbing the lion’s share for himself?

Without even realizing it, we make such assessments in the earliest moments of talks.

Have you ever made a bad first impression during negotiation? Share your story in the comments.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


This article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated.

Related Posts

Comments

One Response to “Why First Impressions Matter in Negotiation”

  • Michael T.

    Insightful research. Thank you for sharing it. Again, perceptions, whether rooted in fact or not, play such a powerful role in interaction, whether conflict resolution or negotiation.

    Trying to clear our mind of such potentially costly thoughts then is the chore. Think it or know it but don’t show or express it. Or if you do, know the “cost” you’ve chosen to pay for it.

    Reply

Leave a Reply