Stereotypes and Negotiation

The Negotiation newsletter is a monthly publication of  the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (Harvard PON for short).  This month’s issue contains a fascinating article on snap judgments too often made by negotiators about the other parties at the negotiation. These judgments tend to be based on stereotypes, and can contribute to mistakes and poor decision-making at the bargaining table.

The article focuses on snap judgments we tend to make at the very earliest moments of negotiations about the warmth and competence of the other parties at the table. Believe it or not, researchers have established that warmth and competence make up 80% of our judgment about others.

The truth is we all tend to put people in boxes based on unfair stereotypes. Research shows, for example, that people tend to view working mothers as warmer but less competent than working fathers and childless men and women. We tend to view the elderly and disabled as warm and incompetent. Asian Americans, African Americans and Jewish people tend to be perceived as competent and cold, as are career women. Men with children tend to be perceived as warm and more competent than those without kids. Anyway, you get the picture. None of these assumptions are necessarily true.

But think about the mistakes these false assumptions could cause during a negotiation. They could easily cause us to overestimate those on the other side, or to underestimate them. Those sorts of miscalculations can lead to bad decisions and bad results during negotiations.

I remember early in my career, I traveled to a blue blood Boston law firm for a big meeting with a bunch of lawyers with Sherm Horton, my friend and long-time mentor. Sherm wasn’t the greatest dresser. He smoked cigars all the time, and had acquired the nickname “3 hole Horton” because that’s how many burn-holes were usually in his ties. He’d show up with a tweed coat, button down shirt, pants, and work boots. But Sherm was a product of Dartmouth and Harvard Law School. He was also brilliant, and still is.

Anyway, I remember when we headed for Boston that day, I was almost embarrassed. Based on Sherm’s wardrobe choice, those big city lawyers might look at us like we just fell off the turnip truck, I thought.  But maybe that’s exactly what Sherm wanted.  We walked in to that meeting and they all looked at us like we were a couple of hillbillies, just as you might expect. And sure enough, they underestimated old 3 hole, because it took him all of 10 minutes to completely take charge of that meeting. It felt like everybody in the room was working for him, and our client was the big winner.

The lessons seem clear: don’t let these largely emotional initial reactions outweigh our rational thoughts about who the players really are. Avoid leaping to conclusions about the opposition; remain open-minded and be willing to revise your opinion based on the evidence as it arises during the negotiation.

At the same time, don’t forget that the players on the other side of the table may be relying on their own inaccurate stereotypes, and using them to size you up as a negotiator.  This means you may have to play up strengths you might have that are not readily apparent. It means your negotiating style is important, and that you need to be consistent so you don’t send mixed messages.