Adapted from “Three Keys to Navigating Multiparty Negotiation,” by Elizabeth A. Mannix (professor, Cornell University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Multiparty negotiations—in which more than two people are bargaining on behalf of themselves or others—create many opportunities to generate value. As the number of people at the table increases, so does the potential to make wise tradeoffs across multiple issues. But group negotiations are also highly complex. Three or more individuals may have more difficulty integrating and maximizing their interests than a pair of negotiators would.
When more than two parties negotiate, they must agree on a decision rule—a formal method of determining the final outcome. Majority rule and unanimity are the most common methods of social choice in Western society.
Yet Max Bazerman, Leigh Thompson, and Elizabeth A. Mannix have found majority rule to be a problematic decision rule in multiparty, multi-issue negotiations. First, majority rule fails to recognize the strengths of individual preferences; the vote of someone who cares very much about an issue carries the same weight as the vote of someone whose opinion on that issue is much weaker. In addition, majority rule can mask opportunities for group members to discover one another’s priorities, thereby preventing tradeoffs across issues. Finally, majority rule may exclude entirely the desires of some participants from the final decision. These individuals are likely to be less committed to the final agreement. It’s not unusual for subgroups to defect from the agreement after the fact.
In their research, Bazerman, Thompson, and Mannix found that groups who were instructed to reach a unanimous agreement achieved more integrative outcomes of higher overall gain than did groups using majority rule. Groups using unanimous rule also distributed resources more equally than did groups operating under majority rule, which may have prompted greater satisfaction with and commitment to the agreement, as well as stronger future relationships.
Of course, groups are not always able to reach unanimous agreements. Without a fallback decision rule, they can risk becoming deadlocked. Rather than opting for simple majority rule, groups may be better off striving for consensus, such as a two-thirds majority with no strong dissenters.