The Shadow Negotiation: Kolb Captures the Hidden Dynamics of Gender in the Workplace

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PON Steering Committee Member and former Executive Director Deborah M. Kolb has published a lively and incisive new book on the impact of gender in the workplace (and elsewhere) called The Shadow Negotiation: How Women can Master the Hidden Agendas that Determine Bargaining Success. Published by Simon and Schuster, the volume is co-authored by organizational change maven Judith Williams, Ph.D. Kolb is also Professor of Management at Simmons College Graduate School of Management, and co-director of its Center for Gender and Organizations. Together these writers bring to bear cutting edge insights drawn from academic research, corporate experience, and expertise gained through years of training and consulting practice. Most importantly, they talked to women.

Hundreds of business women were interviewed in pursuit of the hidden machinations that shape every bargaining situation. The authors have identified a penumbra of attitudes and expectations surrounding and subtly but definitively shaping every negotiation, every exchange of ideas. Their primary observation is that while people negotiate they are also “conducting a parallel negotiation in which they work out the terms of their relationship and their expectations.”

The quality of the writing in The Shadow Negotiation is an added pleasure. Organizational specialist Tom Peters enthuses that The Shadow Negotiation is “a page turner.” The structure of the book is upbeat and forward-looking, moving from problem to solution; the tone is encouraging. The theoretical insights are interwoven with trenchant observations of general situations and examples drawn from real-life negotiations. The text includes dialogues that show exactly where in a conversation stereotypes and expectations may intervene, clouding the issues. The Harvard Business Review has listed The Shadow Negotiation as one of the ten best books of 2000. According to HBR — and who would know better — “Plenty of business books break down the fine art of negotiation, but The Shadow Negotiation may be among the first to dig a level deeper and discuss explicitly the interpersonal communications — particularly the gender issues — that determine how businesspeople get to yes.”

As social commentary, the acuity of the authors’ observations of individual behavior is reminiscent of Erving Goffman at his best. They emphasize that even the “timing and phrasing” of interactions can mean the difference between failure and success of a suggestion. The situations they describe are eerily familiar in their clarity of detail. With a shock of recognition, we see intelligent, well-meaning, confident women systematically derailing their own interests in the course of seeking common ground for negotiation. Unfortunately, the common ground is a minefield of demeaning and discouraging attitudes, any one of which can deflect the course of an idea or project, and which together can prevent even the most determined professional from reaching her goals.

While The Shadow Negotiation is geared specifically toward helping women overcome attitudes that undermine their effectiveness in the workplace, the fundamental analysis applies to all negotiators: Our expectations of people based on their ages, genders, race, social status, and professional ranking will inevitably (even unconsciously) shape the ways in which we think about their ideas. Furthermore, many of us — particularly women — have expectations of ourselves and behave in ways that can blunt the persuasiveness of our arguments.

Non-experts apparently feel the same. With a five-star average customer rating on, readers hail The Shadow Negotiation as more than just another set of negotiating tips. Intended for a general audience, the feel of the book (particularly its innovative and evocative cover design) is clean and engaging but not condescending — there is plenty of documentation to satisfy the skeptical, and an extensive bibliography for those who want to know more.

The Center for Gender in Organizations, co-directed by Kolb, is another source of further information on this fascinating set of issues. A resource for profit and nonprofit organizations worldwide, the Center is dedicated to advancing learning and understanding of the connection between gender, in all its complexities, and organizational effectiveness. Opportunities for participation may be found at

This is a book that not only gives you direction on how to improve your negotiating style, but also invites you to investigate how even mundane, quotidian office practices contain elements in which a “shadow negotiation” may have already been concluded — and not in your favor. The 284-page volume, published in September 2000 is available through the PON Clearinghouse ($26) and most bookstores.

Read this book over the weekend; go to work empowered on Monday.

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