Conventional wisdom holds that you should be assertive in zero-sum negotiations—go first and start high. This quality of assertiveness is often associated with men, who are regularly viewed as better-performing negotiators than women.
But women’s bargaining style may be better at preventing negotiations from stalling, says Professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, an outcome often ignored by researchers, yet one of economic, social, and reputational consequence.
“Being assertive at the bargaining table has been shown to yield better outcomes,” Rosette said. “But being too assertive may make it harder to reach an agreement and this can be costly when you don’t have other options.”
In a new paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Rosette and Fuqua Ph.D. graduates Anyi Ma of the Wisconsin School of Business and Rebecca Ponce de Leon of Columbia Business School found that women negotiators may outperform their male counterparts, especially in settings where negotiators have weak alternatives.
The researchers found that women’s “relation-oriented, interpersonal” negotiation style translates into less aggressive first offers and into higher chances of getting a deal done.
“In general, women tend to be more communal, more relationship-oriented than men,” Rosette said. “This stems from an expectation that women should behave this way, and the fear of backlash that can sometimes arise when they don’t.”
But regardless of the motivations behind their behavior, she said, women’s tendency to disclose more about themselves and their willingness to be perceived as more cooperative fosters a sense of connection that can reduce the chance of impasse in some negotiation settings.
Measuring performance in negotiations
Existing research usually looks at the perceived success of a negotiation by analyzing the economic value of the deal, Rosette said, but impasse rates are also an important outcome that should be considered more prominently. The costs of not reaching an agreement can sometimes be particularly high in negotiation, she said.
“If the value of the potential deal is better than any possible alternative, then reaching an impasse is economically inefficient,” Rosette said.
In one of their studies, Rosette and colleagues measured deal outcomes from Shark Tank, the reality show where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to potential investors. Evaluators were trained to assess the pitches from nine seasons of the show and quantify the entrepreneurs’ “relational” orientation. They found that, 1) women’s relational orientation led them to make less assertive negotiation offers than men; and 2) they reached fewer impasses than men (40% vs 48%).
In a second study, about 400 participants were assigned the role of a job candidate negotiating with an HR manager, with the goal of getting the highest possible salary. Some participants were told that they had a strong alternative and others were told that their alternative was weak if the current negotiation were to collapse. The results further demonstrated women’s relational style and their advantage in avoiding impasse, but they also found that this advantage yielded better negotiation performance only when the job candidate had a weak alternative. Men’s and women’s performance didn’t substantially differ when they had a strong alternative.
“Our findings suggest that men and women may approach negotiations in two distinct ways. Men may focus on trying to get the very best deal, while women may work to avoid impasses,” Rosette said. “When external options are limited, women may be better negotiators than men.”
Skills that can be sharpened or taught
Negotiations affect project funding, employees’ salaries, career advancement, even relationships, the researchers write. Knowing that 29% to 55% of negotiations result in impasse—they write—the ability of the negotiator to understand when getting a deal is better than taking the chance of walking away with nothing is very relevant.
Leaders could use these findings to pick the right person to send to the negotiating table, Rosette said, depending on the specific circumstances—for example, when alternatives are weak.
“We showed that when options are limited, a female negotiator advantage may emerge because of an enhanced focus on relationship building,” she said. “But anyone can have a relational orientation or can be trained to establish relational rapport when negotiating. When looking to get a deal and avoid an impasse, it may be best to avoid the assertive behaviors.”