Key factors that influence negotiations

Individual differences in personality, intelligence and outlook can greatly affect negotiating skills.

Most negotiation advice centres on the mistakes all of us make. But individual differences in personality, intelligence and outlook could also affect your talks. It is natural to believe that individual differences matter in negotiation. At home and on the job, most of us have encountered shrewd negotiators who always seem to get what they want, as well as those who constantly get taken for a ride.

Yet most writing and research on negotiation have focused on the similarities among negotiators. We've learned that almost all of us make snap judgments that can cost us money and that our expectations predictably affect what we get at the table. Do individual differences also matter in negotiation, and if so, how do they play out?

Much of what we have learned so far about how negotiation styles vary has to do with gender and cultural differences. We know, for example, that men tend to negotiate more often than women for career opportunities in certain environments, a gender difference that contributes to inequities over time. Similarly, personality traits such as agreeableness and extroversion could harm you or help you depending on which country you are negotiating in.

What other differences potentially lead to different negotiating outcomes? Here is a list of five major areas in which people differ from one another, identified in a forthcoming Journal of Research in Personality article by Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Jared R Curhan and Lucio Baccaro, Noah Eisenkraft and Aiwa Shirako:

- Positive beliefs about negotiation, such as comfort with negotiation skills and the belief that you can improve

- Conflict style, such as the inclination to collaborate rather than compete, and ethical tendencies, including willingness to make false promises

- Intelligence and creativity, as measured by diagnostic tests

- Personality traits, including conscientiousness, openness and self-esteem

- Observable characteristics, such as gender, age and physical attractiveness

Do such differences predict negotiation outcomes, and if so, to what degree? To answer these questions, Elfenbein and colleagues subjected a group of nearly 150 MBA students to a battery of surveys that measured these differences. Next, the students were divided into groups of four or five. Group members then negotiated in pairs until each group member had engaged in a different simulation (including a merger and a car purchase) with every other member, and each person's ability to claim and create value was scored. This round-robin method allowed the researchers to assess how consistently individuals behaved across several negotiations.

The results? A whopping 46 per cent of scoring variations could be tied to consistent individual performance differences across interactions. In other words, differences among negotiators were responsible for almost half of their outcomes. These differences influenced both their own behaviour and their counterparts' reactions and mattered a great deal.

Although Elfenbein and her colleagues did find that negotiators performed at a similar level from one negotiation to the next, to their surprise, these scores were only minimally related to specific personality traits. And traits that are basically unchangeable, such as gender, ethnic background and physical attractiveness, were not closely connected to people's scores.

A small number of traits did affect negotiators' performance, however.

- Beliefs about negotiation. Do you view negotiation as an innate skill or one that can be learned? Some of us think that we can improve our negotiating ability, and others believe there is little hope of improving our skills. If you think people can improve their negotiation skills, you are likely to outperform those who believe negotiation prowess is innate

- Selfishness and selflessness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, negotiators in the Elfenbein study who were most concerned about their own outcomes achieved higher performance scores than other negotiators

- Intelligence and creativity. In the Elfenbein study, highly intelligent negotiators created more value than others, but they also claimed slightly less value for themselves. As a result, intelligence did not significantly affect negotiators' performance. Similarly, negotiators who scored high on creativity measures were adept at uncovering innovative trade-offs on issues, but their overall scores did not rise above average

- Sensitivity to slights. When you criticise a negotiator's arguments or question her motives, you risk threatening her "face", or social image. Such direct threats to self-esteem can trigger embarrassment, anger and competitive behaviour in your counterpart

We have just begun to understand how our individual differences affect our talks, but these early findings suggest several pieces of advice for negotiators:

- Take stock of yourself. To identify traits and tendencies that could be holding you back at the bargaining table, consider taking aptitude and personality tests. You might also ask trusted colleagues and friends to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses

- Cultivate a positive attitude. The individual differences that had the greatest impact in the Elfenbein study were people's beliefs and attitudes about negotiation. Unlike more ingrained personality and demographic differences, these are easy to change. Just thinking that you can improve your skills given the right training can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thus, it is important that you approach your negotiations with a positive attitude. Setting high but realistic goals also should help you improve.

- Assess other negotiators. Knowledge of how specific individual differences affect negotiation enables you to view your counterparts with greater clarity. You are less likely to be intimidated by a "brainiac" lawyer if you look at her as someone who may have a knack for finding ways to satisfy you both, for example. Similarly, if your manager has a hard time taking advice from others, she may have a strong need to save face. Be careful to use polite language when communicating with sensitive individuals, advise White and colleagues; rather than saying "I disagree", say "I see your point, and at the same time, I want to share some of my thoughts".

- Finally, if you are responsible for negotiators in your workplace, an understanding of their differences can help you guide them towards improvement and fit the right people to the right roles.

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