When Does Personality Matter?

By PON Staffon / Daily, Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “When Tough Talk Is Beside the Point,” by Hal Movius (instructor, The Program on Technology Negotiation, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Most of us intuitively believe that personality traits such as toughness matter a great deal in negotiation. Yet studies by Bruce Barry and Raymond Friedman of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management suggest personality is less of a factor than you might think.

These researchers had subjects complete a personality inventory and then participate in one of two bargaining tasks. In the first study, pairs of buyers and sellers bargained over a single issue, the price of a commodity. Subjects with more trusting and cooperative personalities fared worse than competitive, assertive counterparts, but only when cooperative bargainers set low goals for themselves in advance. Goal levels determined relative gain more than any personality trait—and personality had no influence on goals.

In the second study, pairs engaged in a bargaining task in which trades could be made across multiple issues to create joint gain. This time, personality had no effect on how well negotiators performed. Instead, cognitive ability, as measured by participants’ Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) scores, had a much larger effect on outcomes.

Why do we hold on to the notion that toughness matters so much in negotiation? In part because of the predictable and repeated errors we make when sizing up situations and processing information. Prior to negotiation, a fixed-pie bias leads us to falsely assume that our interests are incompatible with those of our counterpart. Once at the table, we’re vulnerable to the negativity bias, which causes us to react more strongly to negative information, such as threats, than to positive information, such as revelations about possible tradeoffs. We also fall prey to the fundamental attribution error, assuming that the other side’s offers or tactics reflect her underlying traits or attitudes rather than aspects of the situation. All three phenomena can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: the belief that we’re in a win-lose game causes us to behave in ways that actually create a competitive atmosphere.

In your own negotiations, don’t let someone’s reputation or behavior prevent you from setting high aspirations and remaining aware of your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA.

In addition, remember that although co¬operative communication tactics can help create value, they may be less important than searching for differences in preferences and exploiting these differences to create joint gain. For example, a debate over price might be expanded into discussions about total contract value, minimum monthly payments, and a promise not to undersell to other parties. If parties value these components differently, they could build a package of options aimed at meeting each side’s most important concerns.

Finally, avoid being distracted by personality issues by staying curious about the problem at hand. The more information you can elicit, the better your chances of making a game-changing move that will improve your outcome.