Adapted from “The Downside of Anger,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
According to conventional wisdom, responding angrily to another negotiator’s offer sometimes helps you get more of what you want.
This notion is confirmed by some recent studies. In 2004, for example, professor Gerben A. van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues found that participants in a simulated negotiation judged angry counterparts to be more likely than happy bargainers to reject a low offer. These judgments had an impact on the participants’ behavior: they made lower demands and higher concessions with angry opponents than with happy opponents.
It appears that people often believe that caving in is the only way to reach agreement with an angry negotiator. The lesson seems to be that it pays to respond angrily to someone’s low offer, whether you feel angry or not. But is this always true?
In three more recent experiments, van Kleef and three researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands—Eric van Dijk, Wolfgang Steinel, and Ilja van Beest—took a closer look at how displays of anger affect negotiation. The research confirmed that we tend to view angry negotiators as hard bargainers and that being perceived as angry sometimes improves people’s outcomes. However, it also revealed conditions under which anger can backfire. In one experiment, participants who had an opportunity to lie to a counterpart about the amount of resources at stake were more likely to take advantage of angry counterparts than happy ones. As a result of this deception, angry negotiators achieved lesser outcomes than happy negotiators. It seems that people feel more comfortable taking advantage of angry people than those in a good mood.
In another experiment, some participants knew that they would face severe consequences if the other side rejected their offer, while others knew they would suffer little from having their offer rejected. Those in the “low-consequences” condition made significantly lower offers to angry participants than to happy ones. Participants made similarly higher offers to happy negotiators, regardless of whether the consequences of having an offer rejected were high or low. In other words, people seem to fear angry negotiators less—and give them worse offers—when an offer rejection wouldn’t be particularly damaging.
In sum, showing your anger conveys a toughness that can help you get what you want. But beware: When your counterpart has better information than you do and when your rejection is unlikely to hurt her very much, your anger could work against you.
I think two other considerations are at least as important as those cited in the article:
1. What is the scope for value creation in the negotiation?
2. What are the reputation consequences of this negotiation?
Representing anger may be helpful in a non-iterative, single-issue negotiation where no ongoing relationship is needed post deal, but the true costs of anger are likely to show up in other situations. If you concede most of the pie to me due to perceived anger, how much will you look forward to working with me if our deal involves ongoing collaboration? If I’m angry every time we negotiate, how long before you look for other partners or become genuinely angry yourself? How conducive is anger to building trust? How do you ask for post-deal collaboration to improve the deal for both sides when you’ve represented anger throughout the process? Growing the pie is difficult enough without adding anger to the mix.
Is anger a potential tool? Sure. But even setting aside the ethical issues of feigning anger, it’s a very risky tool and one that I’d argue will yield a negative return in the most important deals.