Negotiators: Resist the Vividness Trap

Focus on what you truly value when negotiating for the future.

By on / Salary Negotiations

For the New York Mets, it was hard not to get carried away in their negotiations with Ben Zobrist this past fall. The utility player had a pivotal role in helping the Kansas City Royals defeat the Mets and win the 2015 World Series. When the 34-year-old Zobrist became a free agent, the Mets pursued him as their top target.

Mets manager Terry Collins offered Zobrist a competitive salary, reportedly about $60 million over four years, and told him point-blank, “We want you,” according to the New York Times. The Mets were confident that Zobrist would be equally enthused. But as the negotiations dragged on, the Mets grew nervous, particularly because they had failed to cultivate an appealing backup plan in the event that another team lured Zobrist away.

On December 8, the Mets’ fears were realized. At the Major League Baseball winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, the Chicago Cubs swooped in to sign Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal. Why the Cubs? Zobrist and his family had made a home in Nashville, and the commute to Chicago would be better than the one to New York. In addition, Zobrist had a strong relationship with Cubs manager Joe Maddon, forged during the years they worked for the Tampa Bay Rays. Not to mention, Zobrist could try to help the Cubs win their first World Series in more than 100 years.

“I don’t think this was about the money,” Mets assistant general manager John Ricco told the press, citing Zobrist’s history with Maddon and New York’s distance from Nashville. “I think it was about finding a place that fit.”

Unlike Ben Zobrist, when negotiating for a job, most of us tend to focus single-mindedly on the high-status aspects of our offers, such as an impressive salary or a position with a prestigious organization. Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman has noted that when he overhears graduating MBA students discussing job offers at the student center, they typically talk about starting salaries and mention the names of well-known firms. Less often does he hear them discussing the types of less flashy factors that Zobrist and his wife appear to have considered when weighing his options, such as the length of a commute and rapport with a key colleague.

Why not? Because job seekers, like all negotiators, tend to fall prey to the vividness bias, or the tendency to overweight the vivid and prestigious attributes of a decision, such as salary or an employer’s status, and underweight less impressive issues, such as location or rapport with colleagues, that could have an even more profound effect on them. The vividness bias is deeply rooted in our concerns about status. When we focus on vivid data to the exclusion of issues we would value more upon greater reflection, we are privileging other people’s ideas of what brings satisfaction above our own.

More broadly, research shows that vivid information has a greater influence on negotiators and other decision makers than less interesting data. The vividness bias can lead us to believe we deserve more of a scarce resource than others do because our needs are more salient to us than theirs are, for example.

Putting vivid data in its place

The following three guidelines can help you overcome the vividness bias in your next important negotiation:

  • Decide what you value up front. The less prepared we are for a negotiation, the more distracted we will be by vivid data. To avoid this trap, spend ample time thinking about what you value most before What are your professional and personal goals for the years ahead? What path should you be on to meet them? What sacrifices might you be willing to make to attain them? For Zobrist, this likely meant engaging in family discussions about priorities and logistics. When you arrive at the bargaining table with clear goals, you will be better equipped to appropriately weight—and perhaps discount—vivid data.
  • Choose the right comparison group. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others and feel we’re falling short. Negotiators often make unrealistic social comparisons, measuring themselves against those who have what they want rather than those who are more similar to them, according to Harvard Kennedy School professor Iris Bohnet. By keeping us focused on vivid information, such unrealistic comparisons can lead to impasse, as in the case of a home seller who aims to get as much as a friend got for her larger house. Often experts, such as appraisers, can help us view the situation with less bias.

Make vivid claims with care. When it is ethical to do so, you might consider making your own case more persuasive in negotiation by drawing a counterpart’s attention toward previously hidden positive attributes of your argument that would benefit him. Wise negotiators use visuals and other vivid tools to harness the intuitive impact of vividness to both sides’ advantage.

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