• Behaviour

Gender and Deception in Negotiations

Understanding the male/female dynamics in business negotiations


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We all use a certain level of deception in negotiation, almost always withholding information to strengthen our position and as a self-protective strategy – as revealing all of our cards may leave us vulnerable if your opponent takes advantage of your honesty.

New research from Melbourne Business School professor, Mara Olekalns, and colleagues suggests there are differences in the way male and female negotiators hold back information and how the gender of both negotiating parties affects the use of deception during negotiations. The researchers set-up simulated employment contract negotiations in which 120 students took part. Both same-sex and mixed-sex pairs were created and their negotiations monitored.

What they found is that differences in the negotiation styles and the concerns of men and women going into negotiations certainly do exist. “Men, in negotiations with other men, appear to operate in a flat decision-landscape” says Olekalns. “They do what they do, either deceive or don’t deceive, irrespective of their opponent’s strategy or trustworthiness.”

Meanwhile, when women and men negotiate, a mix of pragmatism and opportunism takes place. Women are more likely to withhold information from an opponent when they believe that person is untrustworthy and behaves competitively (a sin of omission) - moral pragmatism in action.

Moreover, when two women negotiate, a different type of deception also takes place:  misrepresenting information (a sin of commission), which suggests an opportunistic streak exists in all-female negotiations, especially considering misrepresentation peaks under the ‘best of circumstances’ (i.e. when an opponent is perceived as highly trustworthy and uses an accommodating strategy). In such situations, there is no threat, no likelihood of exploitation and yet lying increases. The only instance in which this is counteracted is when the party being deceived retaliates against negotiators for any acts of betrayal.

The research suggests that negotiators should be more conscious about the signals they convey about their trustworthiness; without doing so, they may prime the other party to deceive them. As the findings of this study show, impressions of trustworthiness can have different consequences, depending on who you are negotiating with. In particular, as the number of female negotiators increases, the criteria that trigger deception also become more complex.

Men negotiating with men operate in a predictable social context, almost in a utilitarian fashion, approaching their strategic choices with the mindset that ‘the ends justify the means.’ As such, they at least risk of eliciting deception. On the other hand, women negotiating with other women operate in a more complex way and are at most risk of eliciting deception, as they are more concerned about what the other party’s intention may be.

An awareness of this can help negotiators better assess how well they are doing during negotiations; demonstrating that they will not tolerate betrayal or lying will help ensure they face comparatively less deception.

Access the research paper: Sweet Little Lies: Social Context and the Use of Deception in Negotiation. Mara Olekalns, Carol T. Kulik & Lin Chew. Journal of Business Ethics (March 2014).

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