Monday, 15 July 2013

Is it better to enter negotiations with a team? It depends on your culture

Research suggests that negotiating parties tend to benefit when fielding a team rather than an individual. Generally, more heads are better than one, providing more ideas, helping to synthesise new information, correct each others biases and keep each other on target. Evidence suggests that even a single team operating in a negotiation (versus a solo counterpart) is sufficient to produce outcomes better for both parties. However, a research team led by Michele Gelfand has explored how universal this finding is, and provides data that suggests a different pattern in certain cultural contexts.

The research was conducted at universities in the United States and Taiwan. In each location, students (144 US, 100 Taiwanese) were recruited into a standard negotiation task, where parties are asked to decide how a new business will be run by finding agreement on four different factors. Each factor had various possible outcomes that led to different points awarded to the two parties, who sought to maximise this. Each negotiation was either between two pairs of negotiators, or between two single negotiators.

In the US sample, negotiations involving teams reached as positive outcomes as those helmed by individuals. (Note that teams didn't actually do better, as previous research would have suggested. The researchers suggest the anomaly may have occurred because the four-factor task was not cognitively demanding enough to benefit from many heads). But in the Taiwanese sample, worse collective outcomes were reached when groups were negotiating rather than individuals. The paper also presents an initial sample with smaller sample sizes that bears out this finding: specifically for Taiwanese negotiators, teams performed worse.

Neither national culture nor type of negotiation alone influenced performance, but their interaction did. Why? Gelfand's team decided to conduct this research because one effect of groups is norm amplification: a greater likelihood of behaving in line with your culture. This can be in sync with your goals or in tension with them. The researchers believed that individualistic norms found in the US encourage fighting for your corner and thus help push negotiations into hard but fruitful places. But collectivist norms that prize harmony and agreement may mean negotiations are handled tentatively and non-optimally; this is a component of Taiwanese culture. After the negotiation, all participants identified via a questionnaire how much they believed group harmony was important. Analysis showed that in the team conditions, was what was driving the performance difference between US and Taiwanese students was the higher harmony emphasis in the Taiwanese negotiations.

This research is important for a few reasons. Firstly, it helps us tease out the various effects teams have on negotiations. here raising the importance of norm amplification. It may be for instance that negotiations between friends also evoke a harmony norm, regardless of nationality, making teamwork possibly unwise. Secondly, this work illustrates 'the value of shifting the focus from static cultural differences to cultural dynamics'. By looking at behaviour across contexts, we arrive at a richer understanding of how cultures differ.

ResearchBlogging.orgMichele J. Gelfand, Jeanne Brett, Brian C. Gunia, Lynn Imai, Tsai-Jung Huang, & Bi-Fen Hsu (2013). Toward a Culture-by-Context Perspective on Negotiation: Negotiating Teams in the United States and Taiwan Journal of Applied Psychology, 98 (3), 504-513 DOI: 10.1037/a0031908

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