University of Southern California

Scott Wiltermuth
Secrets of Successful Negotiations
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Could acting dominantly in a negotiation ever help you and your negotiation counterpart find sources of mutual benefit? Should you respond to a dominant negotiation counterpart by acting dominantly yourself? Or is it better for you to act submissively? These are the kind of questions that have intrigued me, and which have driven my recent research in the Management and Organization Department at the Marshall School of Business.

My research suggests that answers to such questions may come from understanding how the dynamics of dominance and submissiveness influence how willing and able people are to coordinate the exchange of information. Specifically, my coauthors and I have found that negotiating pairs are best able to create value when one negotiator behaves dominantly by displaying bodily openness and speaking loudly and the other negotiator behaves submissively by maintaining a constricted posture and speaking softly. Because submissive negotiators are relatively unlikely to initiate information exchanges that may yield value-creation opportunities, and dominant negotiators are relatively unwilling to follow the leads of their counterparts in such explorations, it helps to have one of each in a negotiating pair. These pairs are better able to coordinate the search for mutually beneficial agreements than are dyads consisting of two negotiators behaving either dominantly or submissively.

So should you behave submissively in response to dominance? It depends. If the negotiation is complex and there are many issues to consider, you probably are better off to respond to dominance with submissiveness. However, if it is a simple negotiation (like buying a used car) you should match dominance with dominance.

My research also shows that, in negotiations, the adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is sometimes more accurate than the adage “knowledge is power”. A coauthor and I have found that negotiators can know much about their counterparts. While negotiators often strive to gain as much knowledge of their counterparts as they can, our research suggests that people who possess non- diagnostic information (i.e. information that has no diagnostic or predictive power in a given context) about a negotiation partner may be less likely to share useful forms of information with him or her. They therefore feel more knowledgeable than they actually are and, consequently, stop trying to learn about the things that actually matter in negotiations. As a result, they reached impasses more often and were not able to create mutually beneficial agreements. Thus, some negotiators may actually be better off by limiting their knowledge of their counterparts.

The findings imply that negotiators would benefit by carefully considering which information about their counterparts is likely to be useful and which information is not. Similar lessons would likely apply to managers who make decisions based on perceived knowledge of teammates’ insights or preferences that stem not from actual knowledge of those insights or preferences but rather from more general and less relevant knowledge of those teammates.

To learn more about Scott, visit his webpage.