Carl Seiler, Signing the Preliminary Treaty of Peace at Paris

When people negotiate, they exchange information and solve problems interdependently. The process is rife with opportunities to use different strategies to achieve greater success, including various ethical and unethical behaviors. There isn’t just one way to achieve performance and culture goals, and the best way to pursue them can depend on a variety of factors. Important factors include the sort of approach(es) a negotiator might use to maximize individual—as compared to joint—gains, and behaving ethically versus unethically.

These factors include:

  • What norms are valued and reinforced in the negotiator’s context, e.g., whether ethical behavior in negotiations—versus winning at all costs—is valued and viewed as the norm.
  • Whether negotiators give weight to their long-term relationships with their counterpart(s), as opposed to the single shot outcome of a negotiation.
  • The extent to which individuals are able to maintain an awareness of their values during a negotiation, and of how closely their own and their colleagues’/team’s behaviors are conforming to, versus diverging from, their values and desired behaviors.
  • Differences in parties’ negotiation styles, strategies, and processes, including both how they are used and how they are interpreted (or misinterpreted)—particularly when negotiators have different cultural expectations.
  • The context in which the negotiation is taking place, including power imbalances, differences between the parties’ security points or BATNAs (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement), and which stakeholders have a seat at the table and how the perspectives of absent stakeholders are represented (if at all).

Ideas to Apply

  • Be explicit, with your organization, yourself, and your negotiation team, that you expect to negotiate ethically. Make clear that negotiations are not subject to “special ethics” or otherwise exempt from ethical considerations that would apply in other contexts or kinds of interactions.
  • Be realistic during the planning and evaluation stages of a negotiation. Focus on how you are likely to feel and what you are likely to want (and afterwards, on what truly occurred). Use that information to move closer to your intended behavior, rather than planning around idealistic future or idealized past behaviors.
  • Recognize that the way people negotiate and communicate can vary by culture as well as between individuals within a culture, so you do not fail to evaluate your counterpart(s)’ openness, willingness, or attempts to collaborate, even when they are not immediately recognizable to you based on your own (or your own culture’s) negotiation or communication style.
  • Consider factors beyond those that are immediately apparent to follow through on the intention to negotiate ethically—e.g., stakeholders that will not be present and how consequences of the agreement will affect them, what power differentials exist between parties to the negotiation (including information asymmetry), etc.
  • Think of negotiations as structured around information, and be flexible in your understanding of how it might be communicated. Remain open and curious, and pay attention to discrepancies and patterns. Where possible, respond flexibly and creatively, and always prioritize fit between strategy and context.
  • Attribute due importance to the downstream effects of abusing a position of power, including negative strategic, legal, relational, and reputational consequences.

Key Concepts

Distributive negotiations: Negotiations in which parties’ interests are in direct conflict, often single-issue, so that value acquired by one party is lost by the other.

Integrative negotiations: Negotiations in which parties’ interests are not in direct conflict, so that value can be acquired by one party without that value necessarily coming at the expense of value to the other party(ies).

Value-claiming strategies: Strategies aimed at securing a maximum amount of existing value, i.e., claiming the biggest piece of the pie possible.

Value-creation strategies: Strategies that allow negotiators to collaborate with their counterpart(s) to create more value, i.e., growing the pie as a whole.

Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA): The best option available to a negotiator if they do not reach an agreement with their counterpart(s) to move forward in the current negotiation.

Question and Answer (Q&A): A negotiation style in which information about parties’ interests is shared through the explicit asking and answering of questions.

Substantiation and Offer (S&O): A negotiation style in which parties make offers and concessions, creating a pattern from which parties’ interests may be inferred.

Areas of Research

Values and Expectations

While all relationships require negotiation, they are usually negotiated relatively organically and over time, and without consciously cataloguing and weighing the costs and gains associated with the relationship to make a decision about one’s participation in it at a fixed point in time. Relationships are also typically regarded as a source of value in and of themselves, so that the goal of maintaining a relationship, and allowing it to benefit one’s relationship partner, does not stand in explicit tension with a goal of furthering one’s own interests as much as possible through interaction with that relationship partner. Likewise, in social contexts where individuals don’t consciously recognize any goal as guiding their behavior, they are more likely to interpret their own behavior as driven by, and indicative of, their values and who they are as people.

In a negotiation context, however—as in many other business contexts—many feel that a different set of norms applies, and that neither they nor others should extrapolate their values or their moral worth and character from their behavior during a negotiation. This may provide one explanation, for example, for the pervasiveness of deception in negotiation, including dishonesty through both omission (failing to communicate true information) and commission (communicating false information), despite widespread agreement that deception constitutes an ethical violation under normal circumstances. 

Indeed, research shows that individuals are more likely to engage in unethical behavior during a negotiation depending on whether they view doing so as an ethical decision or as a business decision, and that activating an ethical mindset (e.g., through establishing sanctions of unethical behavior) reduces the likelihood of unethical behavior during negotiations. Likewise, competitive environments (in which individuals’ successes and achievement are framed in relation to others’ accomplishments), a “whatever it takes to win” mindset, and a view of one’s counterpart as one’s rival promote behaviors that are both selfish and unethical. Even an individual’s own awareness of the negotiation strategy they are using promotes the adoption of one of two basic strategic mindsets—problem-solving vs aggressive bargaining—each with different implications for ethical behavior.

Construal level—or whether people take a more abstract and long-term versus more concrete and short-term perspective—has also been found to affect the tendency to be more or less collaborative, with a more abstract construal level promoting greater joint outcomes. Activating the more concrete concept of money also tends to increase unethical intentions and behaviors, while focusing on time and relationships—or relational capital (“the assets that accumulate within a specific dyadic negotiation relationship”)—seems to have the opposite effect. In fact, a focus on money has also been found to promote a self-sufficient orientation, whereas a focus on time promotes investing more in social relationships. 

Longer-term thinking effectively increases the size of the pie by broadening one’s mindset to incorporate potential future issues, as well as any relationship-based long-term benefits that might outweigh a higher short term payoff. In keeping with this idea, a cooperative (versus individualist) orientation has been found to work similarly to simultaneous (versus sequential) issue consideration, by activating norms of reciprocity and mutuality. It should be noted that taking a more cooperative stance does not preclude changing tacks if necessary, as more cooperative negotiators are more likely to adjust their use of integrative and distributive strategies to take their counterparts’ strategy into account.

Just as individuals may perceive the negotiation context as different or separate from other contexts in terms of the ethical framework they apply, they may also fail to apply their understanding of how people and interactions typically function, leading to increased unethical behaviors. For example, negotiations are more successful when negotiators have good rapport and well-coordinated communication, including a focus on the present and on what options exist rather than on the past and on competition. Taking the time to build rapport at the start of a negotiation—if not contraindicated by one’s counterpart’s (e.g., hurried) behavior—may be useful in promoting ethicality and better outcomes. Allowing a counterpart time to process the information one presents may also be important. The prevailing Western perspective assumes that negotiators take a rational approach to behavior and negotiators may expect persuasive appeals to result in immediate rational responses, including immediate concessions. However, as in other areas of life, it often takes time to process and integrate new information.

It is also important to remember that you can’t read minds, and as a result should not make assumptions in interpreting your counterpart’s behavior. For example, depending on their own understanding of the negotiation process, a negotiator may expect more aggressive behavior to give rise to more cooperative behavior from their counterpart, and for more cooperative behavior to give rise to more aggressive behavior, or they may alternatively expect their counterpart to match their behavior. Similarly, negotiators have been found to use unethical behavior “prophylactically” as a deterrent to exploitation (e.g., by misrepresenting or withholding information from competitors perceived as potentially exploitative). Keeping in mind that one’s counterpart’s behavior may not have the same function or be motivated by the intent that it would indicate in oneself may create space for curiosity and a pathway to collaboration, and help to avoid having the behavior automatically trigger you to abandon an ethical framework for a more adversarial mindset.

Cultivating Awareness and Realism

Research on the differential success of learning negotiation skills through analogical learning, observation, and didactic instruction highlights the potential disconnect between what negotiators may be consciously aware of and intend to do, and their actual behavior during a negotiation. Unethical behavior can result from both intentional and unintentional processes, so that individuals’ ethicality is bounded, “deviating in systematic and predictable ways from their values while being unaware that they are doing so.” When this occurs, it is referred to as ethical fading.

This failure to recognize the ethical relevance of one’s actions may have to do with differences in which “self” is activated at different points in the negotiation process. Whereas an individual’s “should self” (focused on one’s values and ideal behavior) is likely to predominate during the planning stages—leading to the expectation of ethical behavior, and during the recollection phase—leading to the perception that one has behaved ethically, an individual’s “want self” is more likely to prevail during the actual negotiation. Taking the pragmatic concerns that may become salient during a negotiation into account before the negotiation begins, and while the “should self” is active, may help negotiators plan for likely challenges to their ethical intentions, as may re-engaging the “want self” during the recollection phase to provide a more realistic view of one’s behavior. 

The same authors note that slippery slope effects, as well as language euphemisms, may have a similar effect of making unethical behavior more likely by making it less noticeable. In other words, negotiators would do well to realistically imagine and seriously engage with preferences, pressures, and concerns that are likely to arise during the negotiation in advance, when it will be easier to hold themselves and their planned responses to their own ethical standards. Likewise, in recollecting and evaluating their behavior after a negotiation, focusing on whether memories of concrete facts fit with generalized descriptions of how the negotiation went (i.e., whether they have credible evidence of those characterizations) can help to keep negotiators honest about how the negotiation progressed. 

A competitive or threatening environment is also more likely to give rise to unethical behavior. In addition to consciously adopting unethical behaviors to serve their self-interest—for example, to increase gains or avoid losses—when individuals’ focus on goals and outcomes becomes too narrow, they may fail to recognize the unethicality of their behaviors through a lack of ethical recognition (e.g., by not thinking through the behavior’s potentially harmful consequences) or morally disengage to rationalize their unethical behaviors (e.g., by justifying harmful behavior and endorsing prioritizing the goal it facilitates over any negative ethical consequences). Likewise, the more a negotiation is perceived as posing a risk to an individual’s sense of self-worth or status, as when one’s counterpart is a rival, the more likely they may be to engage in unethical behavior.

Having a relationship with one’s counterpart makes one more likely to behave ethically with them, including being more honest, while anonymity (as can occur in written or online negotiations) encourages more unethical behavior. Although “over-identifying” with an organization and loyalty can increase one’s propensity to engage in unethical behaviors on behalf of the organization, keeping in mind that these behaviors may harm one’s organization in the long-term by damaging its reputation may make a relationship mindset nonetheless generally useful in supporting ethical behavior.

Ways of Negotiating: Styles, Strategies, and their Intersection with Culture

If negotiation itself is “a process of communicating back and forth for the purpose of reaching a joint decision,” “Negotiation strategy represents the way that people negotiate.” Just as in other areas of life, individuals differ in how they tend to behave and communicate during a negotiation, and these differences tend to interact with broader cultural differences in impacting negotiation outcomes.

Negotiators differ, for example, in their propensity for risk-taking. Typically, those with a higher risk propensity tend to make fewer concessions and to be more self-oriented and aggressive, while those who prefer to avoid risk are more likely to cooperate and to reach better negotiated outcomes. On the other hand, being particularly conciliatory can actually undermine cooperative problem-solving by leading individuals to adopt a more accommodating strategy that prioritizes the other party’s concerns while forgoing one’s own, and as a result, miss out on the potential for value-creation that comes from both parties engaging in information sharing.

Individual differences can also interact with cultural differences. For example, the negative effects of being more conciliatory were decreased in the study above for individuals from collectivist or high context cultures, in which the prioritization of interpersonal harmony actually seems to facilitate problem-solving in bargaining situations.

Culture in and of itself can also impact communication, in terms of how individuals expect to and typically interact with one another (both how they treat others and how others treat them), and how they use different forms of communication to achieve particular communication goals. In other words, in addition to tending to favor one negotiation style over another, “negotiators from different cultures may achieve similar outcomes using different negotiation strategies, or different outcomes using the same negotiation strategy.” 

In particular, negotiators from holistic mindset cultures—who consider context and use associative reasoning to understand a situation as a whole—are more likely to respond to conflicting perspectives by trying to transcend the contradiction, and favor negotiating by making and substantiating offers. Those from analytic mindset cultures—who focus on a specific piece of content—instead tend to use linear reasoning, experience discomfort when faced with contradiction and choose one perspective over the other, and favor negotiating by explicitly asking and answering questions. 

While research has tended to show an association between Q&A and higher joint gains—as would be expected given its focus on information exchange—in some cultures higher joint gains are associated with S&O rather than Q&A. Likewise, negotiators from cultures with different mindsets (holistic versus analytical) have been found to achieve similarly high joint outcomes, and to each do so using the prototypical strategy for their culture. Despite having a less obvious link (at least to those from more analytical cultures) with information exchange, the use of S&O can implicitly communicate a negotiator’s interests and priorities, and those from holistic cultures may be particularly good at recognizing this information in their counterpart’s pattern of offers. 

It would be a mistake to assume that a counterpart using an S&O strategy is necessarily being aggressive or attempting not to collaborate, or that a lack of more direct communication must be met with a more unilateral or self-oriented strategy. Increasing one’s awareness of these potential differences, approaching a negotiation with curiosity, and not assuming individuals always communicate in the same ways can help negotiators to be more observant, ask questions, and remain open to unexpected outcomes.

Situational Context: Logistics, Inclusion, Procedure, and Power

Finally, context plays a crucial role in influencing the ethics and outcome of a negotiation. Procedural justice, or the fairness of the negotiation process itself, is a key element of this context, and promotes both collaboration and the acceptance of an agreement when reached. Decisions about negotiation logistics constitute part of this process, and while making these decisions unilaterally may be perceived as more efficient and as conferring an advantage, involving one’s counterpart will likely increase their perception of the negotiation as fair. 

Most concretely, failing to include or consider all stakeholders at the bargaining table can result in outcomes that appear to be instances of integrative bargaining but are, actually, parasitic integration. That is, the present parties’ joint gains have been increased (value-claimed) at the expense of an unseen party, rather than constituting true value-creation. Similarly to ethical fading, in this situation the negotiators may fail to recognize the ethical implications of their offers or agreement, but, in this case, due to a relevant set of information and considerations being absent from the scene.

The power held by each party also forms an important part of the negotiation context, including the existence of a power imbalance. According to the “four horsemen” model based on a review of the literature on power and negotiations, the four sources of power in a negotiation are alternatives, information, status, and social capital. While power has most often been conceptualized in terms of a negotiator’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA), both one’s BATNA and these alternative conceptualizations increase the resources at an individual’s disposal, rendering them less dependent on any particular negotiation in their efforts to reach their goals. Having access to more information (e.g., about one’s counterpart’s priorities, alternatives, and sources of power) also increases one’s probability of a successful outcome. Imbalances of information, including when one party reveals issue compatibility while the other does not, creates a potential incentive for deception (i.e., feigning issue incompatibility to leverage their concession on the issue). 

In the case of in-person negotiations, information can also be derived from emotional expression, and allowing for emotional expression during a negotiation facilitates reciprocity and the resolution of relational problems. Suppressing emotional expression, on the other hand, elicits an experience of threat both in the individual suppressing their emotions and in their interaction partner, and disrupts communication even when the individual suppressing their emotions is actively trying to communicate non-emotional information. Perspective-taking also promotes collaboration by providing access to additional information, but should be distinguished from empathy (experiencing another’s emotions), which can actually undermine both integrative bargaining and the claiming of individual gains.

Status refers to “the extent to which a negotiator is respected by the other side” and provides increased access to resources, including by increasing the odds that an individual’s counterpart will defer to one’s demands and be willing to offer more value than they would to lower-status negotiators. A negotiator’s status also intersects with their broader societal status, meaning that demographic characteristics (e.g., membership in groups facing prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization) should be taken into account as well when assessing parties’ relative power. Social capital constitutes its own source of power, but largely serves to facilitate access to alternatives (or the potential for alternatives), information, and status.

Finally, negotiators should take into account how the context in which negotiations occur affect power imbalances. For example, research on the effect of class suggests that belonging to a higher social class increases the likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior, and that upper-class individuals’ more positive view of greed partially accounts for this tendency. Upper-class individuals are specifically more likely to engage in unethical behavior that benefits oneself as opposed to others. On the other hand, power imbalances can be mitigated by external, structural factors, including the involvement of third parties, and by linking issues—as well as managing others’ attempts to link issues—in the context of multilateral environments (where negotiations one is not party to may be influencing the priorities and strategy of one’s counterpart).

Suggestions for Future Research

  • Investigate the short- and long-term consequences of exploiting a counterpart’s dependence or relative lack of power, relative to negotiations with reduced power differentials or those in which they were taken into account, adjusted for, and respected (rather than exploited).
  • Design and test interventions aimed at improving negotiators’ ability to unpack their own and their counterpart’s proxies and heuristics in order to facilitate perspective-taking and value-creation.
  • Design and test interventions aimed at improving the ability of negotiators from low-context cultures (including the U.S.) to recognize patterns and glean information from their counterpart’s offers, so that they are not dependent on Q&A-style negotiating in order to understand their counterparts’ preferences.

Recommended Reading

Academic Articles

Brett, J. M., & Gelfand, M. J. (2006). A cultural analysis of the underlying assumptions of negotiation theory. Negotiation theory and research, 173-201.

Brett, J. M., Gunia, B. C., & Teucher, B. M. (2017). Culture and negotiation strategy: A framework for future research. Academy of Management Perspectives, 31(4), 288-308.

Galinsky, A. D., Maddux, W. W., Gilin, D., & White, J. B. (2008). Why it pays to get inside the head of your opponent: The differential effects of perspective taking and empathy in negotiations. Psychological science, 19(4), 378-384.

Guidice, R. M., Alder, G. S., & Phelan, S. E. (2009). Competitive bluffing: An examination of a common practice and its relationship with performance. Journal of Business Ethics, 87(4), 535-553.

Kilduff, G. J., Galinsky, A. D., Gallo, E., & Reade, J. J. (2016). Whatever it takes to win: Rivalry increases unethical behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 59(5), 1508-1534.

Nadler, J., Thompson, L., & Boven, L. V. (2003). Learning negotiation skills: Four models of knowledge creation and transfer. Management Science, 49(4), 529-540.

Ordóñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(1), 6-16.