Why We Focus on Culture in Negotiations

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Coping with Culture at the Bargaining Table,” first published in the May 2009 issue of Negotiation.

Why we focus on culture

Why does concentrating on the other side’s culture lead to problems in negotiation? Consider that negotiators often focus too narrowly on the most obvious information about the task at hand. Such focusing failures lead negotiators to overlook information that’s just as important but less obvious, according to Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman.

When you learn you’ll be negotiating with someone from a different culture, that person’s culture becomes the most salient aspect about her, especially if the culture is unfamiliar to you. Yet many experts believe individual differences play just as important a role in negotiation as cultural differences.

By focusing on cultural differences, negotiators risk treating their counterparts as cultural ambassadors rather than unique, multifaceted human beings. When both sides are stuck in this trap, it becomes all the more difficult to reach common ground.

How to balance cultural concerns

When preparing for an international negotiation, how much emphasis should you place on culture? On the one hand, you don’t want to offend your counterpart with insensitive behavior. On the other hand, focusing too much on culture can backfire, especially if the other side is doing the same.

These three guidelines should help you strike the right balance:

1. Consider the individual.

Background research on your counterpart’s culture is important, but it’s probably even more important for you to get to know her as an individual, including her profession, work experience, education, areas of expertise, personality, and negotiating experience. Of course, it’s just as important for your counterpart to treat you as an individual rather than a stereotype. For this reason, you might suggest an introductory phone call before you meet in person. In addition to getting to know each other, you could discuss your plans and expectations for your first meeting and the negotiation in general. You may find that your counterpart’s profession or aspects of her personality turn out to be a better indication of her negotiating style than her nationality. Such “microcultural” differences can have a strong impact on negotiations (see also, What Divides You Can Unite You).

If you’re meeting with a Mexican engineer, she might end up behaving more like an American engineer than like a stereotypical Mexican businessperson. And if the same counterpart turns out to be reserved and shy, you’ll need to abandon advice based on stereotypes about Mexican expressiveness.

2. Broaden your scope.

While co-teaching a course on corporate diplomacy to executives, Bazerman was impressed by the ability of some diplomats in attendance to incorporate a broad array of concerns into their negotiation planning. When analyzing a negotiation in a foreign country, the diplomats raised issues pertaining to changing politics and laws in the region, the interests of community groups, and business norms.

The interpersonal challenges of negotiating with someone from another culture make it all too easy to overlook the broader context of your talks.

But by adopting a more inclusive mindset and thinking like a diplomat, you’ll improve your odds of reaching a successful, lasting agreement.

3. Reduce stress.

In his research on intercultural negotiations, Columbia University professor Michael W. Morris has found that negotiators are more likely to behave according to cultural stereotypes when facing extreme demands on their attention.

In one study, participants were asked to judge an employee whose behavior had led to a negative result. When facing time pressure, American participants were more likely than Hong Kong participants to blame the individual rather than the situation for the problem—an American negotiating bias. Emotional stress, deadlines, and accountability to others from your own culture can cause you to act in lockstep with cultural expectations rather than carefully analyzing the situation, according to Morris. For this reason, do what you can to reduce stress at the bargaining table, whether by taking breaks, extending deadlines, or asking a neutral third party to help you resolve any differences that arise during your talks.

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Related Article: Coping With Culture at the Bargaining Table

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