Adapted from “Is Time on Your Side?” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, May 2007.
A difficult negotiation looms on the horizon—say, next year’s allocation of resources across divisions or your family’s summer vacation destination. Should you negotiate now or wait? Professors Marlone Henderson, Yaacov Trope and Peter Carnevale of New York University provide experimental evidence that negotiating sooner rather than later can increase the likelihood of discovering and capturing value-creating opportunities.
The researchers ran three experiments that tested the decision-making ability of NYU participants in the context of various negotiation simulations. In each, students were more likely to engage in the type of complex, abstract thinking recommended by negotiation theorists when considering a simulation that would take place after a period of time had passed than when the simulation would occur much sooner. In one study, student subjects in a negotiation simulation made more multi-issue offers and counter-offers and created more value overall when the project at stake was five months away rather than the next day.
The findings are consistent with construal level theory, or CLT, which suggests that people construe objects differently according to their distance from them. From a distant perspective, people form a higher-level, more abstract construal of an object-exactly what’s needed to identify creative solutions in negotiation. The students were more capable of abstract, creative reasoning when contemplating distant simulations than they were when considering immediate ones. The results support CLT in the context of negotiation and lend credence to the familiar advice, “Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.”
Of course, countervailing considerations abound in real-world negotiations. It may be better to delay talks about divisional resource allocation negotiation if you will learn more about employees’ performance and the needs of the company in the intervening time. Similarly, family members may not pay close attention to a negotiation over a vacation that is months away, yielding a decision they later hate. Thus, you should carefully weigh any potential benefits of waiting to negotiate against the potential costs documented in this research.