Adapted from “Team Negotiating: Strength in Numbers?”, first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
According to conventional wisdom, when it comes to negotiation, there’s strength in numbers. Indeed, several experimental studies have supported the notion that you should bring at least one other person from your organization to the bargaining table if you can. On average, this research has found that teams exchange more information than solo negotiators, make more accurate judgments of the other side, and create more value, resulting in greater profits compared to individuals.
Researchers Michele J. Gelfand, Jeanne M. Brett, Daphne Huang, Lynn Imai, and Hwa-Hwa Tsai tested these findings across cultures and contexts. In the United States, teams engaged in an exercise involving a potential deal outperformed solo negotiators; however, teams underperformed solo negotiators in the same exercise in Taiwan. When participants had to resolve a dispute rather than a deal, the results changed: teams and solo negotiators achieved similar outcomes in the United States, and teams outperformed solo negotiators in Taiwan.
What explains these intriguing findings? The researchers hypothesize that in collective cultures such as Taiwan, negotiating teams focus on developing relationships, both within the team and across the table, and thus are less likely to challenge each other. The result is greater harmony—and less of the friction that is needed to generate novel alternatives. By contrast, the stress of disputing in collectivist cultures may lead Taiwanese solo negotiators to engage in a “flight response” and take a minimum offer, while a team provides the support and assurance needed to stay at the table. The researchers further hypothesize that U.S. teams in a dispute will succumb to excessive competition, thus inhibiting value creation and distribution.
While more work must be done to pinpoint the factors underlying these results, it is clear that the notion of “strength in numbers” is context specific. The next time you are preparing for an important business negotiation, think through cultural and contextual factors before deciding whether to face your counterpart with a team or by yourself.
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