Q: If I’m negotiating with another person and they’ve got a big, dominant posture, is it better for me to push back and act the same way, or to ease up and look more laid back?
A: There is evidence that you’re better off complementing the other negotiator’s posture rather than trying to dominate the room yourself. It results in better outcomes for both parties.
A group of business researchers from UCLA and Stanford did a series of experiments on posture and negotiations and published the results in 2015 in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.
Previous research suggests that a dominant posture (loud voice, big body poses, etc.) can improve one’s standing in a negotiation. However, it has negative effects as well – it alienates everyone else in the room and causes everyone more stress.
- If you’re negotiating with someone you actually need to get along with later, then all the dominant behaviors might actually hurt you in the long run.
But what if you’re in a negotiation with someone who has already taken the dominant pose – some big tough guy who is trying to push everyone around? Should you “fight fire with fire” and assume the same posture? Or should you ease up and tactically let him run the show?
The tricky thing about negotiations is that they’re not always zero-sum (one side wins, one side loses). There are points of negotiations where both sides desire the same outcome – and some points that matter to one side but not the other.
- Therefore, it’s more complicated than one side getting everyone they want.
In the first study, the experimenters tested their first hypothesis: that dominance leads a person to assert their positions and preferences, and that submissiveness leads a person to ask more questions to see how both sides can benefit.
They recruited 90 participants to take part in a mock negotiation.
In the negotiation, participants were given the following information:
They were part of a company that was planning to merge with another company.
- There were 6 terms that affected the future of their company.
- Each term had 5 potential outcomes, each with its own level of points (the better the outcome for one’s own company, the more points a person gets).
- Thus, a person tries to secure the outcome that is best for his/her own company, therefore getting more points.
- One of the issues was “distributive,” meaning that it was a zero-sum game. If one side got a higher outcome, the other side got a lower one.
- One of the issues was “congruent,” so it was possible for both sides to get high points.
- The rest of the issues were “integrative,” so that each was more important to one side than the other. If the two sides worked together on these, then they could get the outcomes that were best for both sides.
- One group was instructed to display the following DOMINANT behaviors:
Taking charge of the conversation
Speaking in a loud voice
Making sure their views were understood
Interrupting others often
Invading personal space of others
- Expansive body postures
- One group was instructed to display the following SUBMISSIVE behaviors:
Treating the other side respectfully
Making counterpart feel competent
Agreeing with the counterpart whenever possible (without sacrificing own goals)
Complimenting the other side
Closed up physical posture (crossing legs, keeping knees together, keeping hands together, etc.)
- One group was not given any particular instructions regarding behavior.
- The researchers then simply asked people how they would conduct themselves during the negotiation, to see which side would be more likely to assert their views and which side would be more likely to ask questions.
- During this phase, no actual negotiation took place.
- As they predicted, the DOMINANT group was more likely to assert their views.
The SUBMISSIVE group was more likely to ask questions.
- Additionally, the SUBMISSIVE group was more likely to think of ways to satisfy both sets of interests, while the DOMINANT group was the least likely to do so.
This time, 198 participants were recruited for a study on one-on-one negotiations. In this study, actual negotiations did take place.
Negotiators went through the same instructions as in Experiment 1 (two companies were merging and they were negotiating for their own side).
- They were also put into dominant and submissive groups.
- Those put in the DOMINANT group were told that dominant, powerful poses can give people an edge in negotiations (they were given the same dominance instructions as in Experiment 1).
- Those put in the SUBMISSIVE group were told that being too dominant in a negotiation can backfire and one strategy to avoid this is to disarm one’s opponent through submissive behaviors (they were also given the same submissive instructions as in Experiment 1).
They randomly put negotiators together for a one-on-one negotiation, with independent raters observing. The possible combinations were:
- Then, they went through the mock negotiations!
The negotiations with the WORST outcomes were those where the negotiators were evenly matched (two dominants and two submissives).
Remember: it wasn’t a fully zero-sum game. There were parts of the game where the negotiators needed to work together for mutually beneficial agreements.
- In the DOMINANT-DOMINANT pairs, the two negotiators just locked horns and tried to bulldoze each other. The result was poor outcomes for both negotiators.
- In the SUBMISSIVE-SUBMISSIVE pairs, neither negotiator wanted to assert his/her own views and just asked questions of the other person. Nothing got done. Once again, there were poor outcomes for both.
- However, in the SUBMISSIVE-DOMINANT pairs, one negotiator tended to balance the other out. The dominant negotiator would assert needs and the submissive negotiator would disarm the dominant one by asking questions that would allow both to mutually benefit.
- When there was a dominant side and a submissive side, you would think that the dominant party would be the beneficiary of the situation. But that’s not what happened. When the two sides complemented each other, neither side got significantly more points – they both mutually benefited.
- This time, they repeated Experiment 2, only this time they added negotiators with no instructions.
- Maybe better outcomes would result if people act naturally without being given special negotiating instructions?
- 226 participants were recruited for this study.
- Having people act naturally with no instructions resulted in worse outcomes than giving them instructions.
- In other words, there really were benefits to instructing people in complementary behaviors (dominance vs. submissiveness).
What do we learn from this set of studies?
- Being DOMINANT in a negotiation doesn’t always result in the best outcomes for everyone. It all depends on who you’re negotiating with.
- If the other person is being a big, loud, dominant personality, then trying to match that person’s personality will actually reduce outcomes for everyone.
- Likewise, if you’re negotiating with someone who is quiet, respectful, and generally submissive, then matching that person’s actions will result in nothing getting done.
- The most powerful negotiation outcomes were the result of the two sides complementing each other. One of them took the dominant role, one took the submissive role.
Wiltermuth, S., Tiedens, L. Z., & Neale, M. (2015). The benefits of dominance complementarity in negotiations. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 8(3), 194-209. Link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ncmr.12052/abstract