Why it Pays to Save Face

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “In Negotiation, How Much Do Personality and Other Individual Differences Matter?” First published in the Negotiation newsletter.

When you criticize a negotiator’s arguments or question her motives, you risk threatening her “face,” or social image. Such direct threats to self-esteem can trigger embarrassment, anger, and competitive behavior in your counterpart, according to research by Judith White (Dartmouth College), Renée Tynan (University of Notre Dame), and Adam Galinsky and Leigh Thompson (both of Northwestern University).

Some people are more sensitive to slights than others, White and colleagues have learned. These thin-skinned, self-conscious individuals work hard to control the way others perceive them.

What happens when slight-sensitive people negotiate? When they negotiated as sellers in one simulation, they were twice as likely as others to declare impasse even though agreement would have benefited both sides.

Interestingly, these prickly negotiators didn’t overreact when they played the role of buyer in the same simulation. The researchers concluded that when slight-sensitive people are personally invested in an issue being negotiated—for instance, when they’re selling a family heirloom or interviewing for a job—they are susceptible to feeling threatened and, as a result, behave competitively.