No More Mr Nice Guy: Tougher Negotiators Make Better Deals

JEONG, Martha | MINSON, Julia | YEOMANS, Michael | GINO, Francesca

Distributive bargaining is innately competitive: one party cannot benefit without the other’s losing out. To secure the best deals, good negotiation skills are crucial. Negotiators usually opt for one of two opposing communication styles—warm and friendly or tough and firm. But which has the upper hand in a distributive bargaining context? Negotiation expert Martha Jeong of HKUST and her colleagues offer a definitive answer to this question, showing negotiators exactly “when and how to strategically communicate toughness to achieve their economic goals.”

“When entering a negotiation,” say the researchers, “individuals face many choices about how to achieve success.” First, they need to set economic parameters for their bargaining behavior, such as reservation price and first offer. Next, they must consider the non-economic side of the interaction. Behavior such as body language, tone, and word choice “can be used strategically to project an overall communication style that is mainly characterized by its warmth or toughness.”

People often believe that the “good guy” is more likely to succeed in negotiations. Being warm and ingratiating, they argue, inspires the other party to reciprocate by offering a better deal. “Conversely,” the researchers add, “others may believe that using tough and firm language is more likely to showcase their resolve and extract greater concessions.”

Although communication style may directly affect economic outcomes, the non-economic side of negotiation has often been neglected in research—until now. “[We] address a gap in prior literature by cleanly testing the effect of communication style while controlling for economic bargaining behaviour”, say the authors. Using a novel algorithm designed to detect and quantify warmth/toughness in written messages, they conducted field and laboratory experiments to explore the effects of communication style on negotiation outcomes.

First, the researchers posed as a potential buyer looking for an iPhone on Craigslist. In this scenario, warmth was not the route to success. “A tough and firm communication style led to systematically larger discounts,” the researchers report. This was verified in a lab-based study in which buyer–seller dyads negotiated over an antique sugar bowl. “On average [in this study], being warm and friendly cost buyers an additional 15%,” say the researchers.

A tougher negotiation style may be more effective because it is direct and less polite, suggest the authors. In a distributive negotiation, in which power is ambiguous, politeness may be interpreted as weakness. Indeed, in one experiment, third-party raters perceived tough buyers as more dominant than their warm counterparts. Surprisingly, the researchers also found that adopting a tough communication style came at no social cost: it had no bearing on sellers’ “satisfaction [with] or enjoyment of their interactions.”  

The researchers’ conclusion was clear. Contrary to popular belief, a warm communication style may place negotiators in a weak bargaining position. Intriguingly, however, the negotiators involved in the study were completely unaware of the consequences of their communication decisions. They felt compelled to adopt a warm and friendly style, convinced that the “good guy” always wins.

Overturning this assumption, the researchers’ novel findings reveal the true path to success in the ever more competitive arena of economic bargaining. “Negotiators could save effort, achieve better economic outcomes, and experience greater satisfaction by toughening up,” the researchers conclude.

JEONG, Martha

Assistant Professor