Are You Willing to Stretch the Truth While Negotiating?
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Organizations Nov 6, 2018

Are You Willing to Stretch the Truth While Negotiating?

It may depend on your gender and who you are representing.

The role of gender in telling the truth in negotiation.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Maryam Kouchaki

Laura J. Kray

Imagine you’re a real estate agent, selling a house with a leaky roof. Do you reveal that fact to potential buyers? The answer may differ depending on your gender.

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Men are more like­ly than women to lie and say the roof is in great shape — an instinct that tends to be the same whether men are sell­ing a client’s house or their own.

But for women, there is more nuance to the answer, accord­ing to new research by Maryam Koucha­ki, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kel­logg. A woman who is nego­ti­at­ing on behalf of some­one else will lie at rough­ly the same rate as her male coun­ter­part. But, if she is nego­ti­at­ing on her own behalf, she is much less like­ly to deceive.

Women feel they are under pres­sure. They think, I’m going to let that per­son down unless I deceive,’” Koucha­ki says. That feel­ing of guilt may cause them to stray from their core val­ues and deceive on behalf of a client.

The Role of Guilt in Negotiations

Pre­vi­ous research on com­pet­i­tive nego­ti­a­tions reveals inter­est­ing gen­der dif­fer­ences. Men, for exam­ple, report low­er per­son­al eth­i­cal stan­dards while nego­ti­at­ing than women do. And women feel com­pelled to nego­ti­ate less assertive­ly based on society’s expec­ta­tions of women.

But one sit­u­a­tion seems to even the play­ing field: when women nego­ti­ate on behalf of oth­ers.

Women in advo­ca­cy roles are get­ting as much done as men,” Koucha­ki says.

Koucha­ki and coau­thor Lau­ra Kray of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley won­dered why this was the case. Specif­i­cal­ly, they won­dered about the role of guilt. Could the guilt attached to not doing every­thing pos­si­ble to help a client, no mat­ter how uneth­i­cal it might be, lead women to act against their own moral com­pass?

After all, research has shown that women are sig­nif­i­cant­ly more guilt-prone than men. But guilti­ness is not always bad — it can rein­force moral behavior.

A lot of research shows that guilt can be a pos­i­tive force. Guilt-prone peo­ple are like­ly to be more eth­i­cal,” Koucha­ki says. But, there’s a pos­si­ble twist. If women feel guilty about doing the eth­i­cal thing, then guilt can lead to bad behavior.”

How Appro­pri­ate Are Decep­tive Nego­ti­at­ing Tactics? 

To test their idea, the researchers recruit­ed 174 par­tic­i­pants to com­plete an online ques­tion­naire in which they rat­ed the appro­pri­ate­ness of decep­tive nego­ti­at­ing tac­tics such as mak­ing false promis­es or brib­ing peo­ple to get infor­ma­tion about oppo­nents. Half the par­tic­i­pants rat­ed the state­ments as though they were nego­ti­at­ing for them­selves, and half as though they were rep­re­sent­ing a friend.

Women rat­ed the decep­tive tac­tics as more appro­pri­ate to use when nego­ti­at­ing on behalf of some­one else than for them­selves, while men rat­ed the tac­tics equal­ly, regard­less of their role.

In anoth­er, sim­i­lar study, women report­ed feel­ing a high­er expec­ta­tion to lie when nego­ti­at­ing on behalf of a friend than for them­selves, while men report­ed the same lev­el of expec­ta­tion to lie in both sce­nar­ios.

The researchers won­dered whether these beliefs would trans­late to actu­al actions dur­ing a nego­ti­a­tion sit­u­a­tion. To find out, they recruit­ed male and female par­tic­i­pants for an in-per­son role-play­ing nego­ti­a­tion.

Approx­i­mate­ly half of all par­tic­i­pants were assigned the role of a buy­er who want­ed to pur­chase a piece of land to build a high-rise hotel; the rest were instruct­ed to act as that buyer’s agent. Then par­tic­i­pants inter­act­ed with a sell­er — actu­al­ly an actor fol­low­ing a script — who demand­ed that the prop­er­ty be used only for res­i­den­tial pur­pos­es. Would par­tic­i­pants lie about their plans for the prop­er­ty in order to get the deal done?

Over­all, 66 per­cent of male par­tic­i­pants lied to the sell­er, com­pared to just 54 per­cent of female par­tic­i­pants. For men, the rate of lying did not change much whether they were act­ing as buy­ers or agents. But for women, the sto­ry was quite dif­fer­ent. When act­ing as a buyer’s agent, women lied at rough­ly the same rate as did men. But when rep­re­sent­ing them­selves, only 44 per­cent of women lied. 

An Expec­ta­tion to Lie

So women lie as much as men do when they are act­ing on behalf of oth­ers — at least in part because they feel like they are expect­ed to do so. But where does this expec­ta­tion come from?

In anoth­er study, near­ly 400 par­tic­i­pants read a sce­nario involv­ing sell­ing a used car — either their own or a friend’s — that had a known defect. Par­tic­i­pants in each group were divid­ed in half, with one half rat­ing their lev­el of agree­ment with state­ments about how they would feel if they did reveal the defect, and the oth­er half rat­ing state­ments about how they would feel if they did not reveal the defect. All par­tic­i­pants also rat­ed their agree­ment with moral state­ments such as, Omit­ting some infor­ma­tion is just a way of get­ting a fair deal.”

The researchers found that, when rep­re­sent­ing oth­ers, women antic­i­pat­ed feel­ing more guilt when they told the truth about the car’s defect — sug­gest­ing their guilt stemmed from let­ting down the sell­er. Yet women rep­re­sent­ing them­selves expe­ri­enced the oppo­site, antic­i­pat­ing feel­ing more guilt for deceiv­ing the buy­er than for telling the truth.

Inter­est­ing­ly, the researchers found that women dis­agreed with immoral state­ments equal­ly, whether they were rep­re­sent­ing them­selves or others.

It’s not as though they saw deceiv­ing as moral­ly accept­able when rep­re­sent­ing oth­ers. They know their stan­dards. They rec­og­nized the expec­ta­tion to lie for some­one else, and when they didn’t, they felt bad.”

— Maryam Kouchaki

Whom You’re Nego­ti­at­ing for Matters

The final study looked at whether women’s advo­ca­cy behav­ior would change if they were nego­ti­at­ing on behalf of a man ver­sus a woman. Par­tic­i­pants played a role-play­ing game where they com­pet­ed either on behalf of them­selves or on behalf of a part­ner they had just met. The game was set up so that par­tic­i­pants could earn small amounts of mon­ey, which cre­at­ed an incen­tive to lie.

When women rep­re­sent­ed a male part­ner, they lied 68 per­cent of the time, com­pared to lying 42 per­cent of the time on behalf of a female part­ner. (Men’s decep­tive behav­ior did not change based on the gen­der of their part­ner.)

Koucha­ki the­o­rized that women feel more oblig­at­ed to lie for their male clients since they tend to think a male client is more like­ly to expect decep­tion than is a female client, and thus the guilt of not doing so dri­ves them to be decep­tive.

Even if women have high moral stan­dards, there are traps where guilt can lead to bad behav­ior,” Koucha­ki says.

Over­rid­ing the Feel­ing of Pres­sure to Lie Dur­ing Negotiations

While elim­i­nat­ing gen­der dif­fer­ences sounds, on the sur­face, like a good thing, it becomes prob­lem­at­ic if women are feel­ing coerced into behav­ior that goes against their own beliefs or moral com­pass.

Giv­en that, man­agers should be clear about expec­ta­tions to ensure that they are not sig­nal­ing to employ­ees that it is OK to be decep­tive in order to get results.

Even good peo­ple with high stan­dards can have their behav­ior changed by a man­ag­er,” she says. They could feel pres­sure to deceive.”

And those who have found them­selves caught up in a nego­ti­a­tion where they deceived, despite hav­ing a strong moral core, should reflect on that as a way to improve next time.

I believe in a learn­ing ori­en­ta­tion for moral­i­ty,” Koucha­ki says. There are not good peo­ple or bad peo­ple. You learn and get feed­back. You con­tin­u­al­ly grow over time.”

Featured Faculty

Maryam Kouchaki

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Emily Ayshford is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Kouchaki, Maryam, and Laura J. Kray. 2018. “’I Won’t Let You Down:’ Personal Ethical Lapses Arising from Women’s Advocating for Others.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 147: 147-157.

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