Negotiation is an essential part of any communication. We all are constantly in the process of negotiation in many aspects of our everyday life, be it work obligations or business opportunities. However, many of us view the goal of negotiation as something negative. This is most probably because most of them involve agreements that are contentious with a potential winner or a lose. Some are of the notion that they need to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals and that there is no such concept of ethical negotiation. But ethics do play an important role and are essential to any effective negotiation.
Preparation is essential to any negotiation. Whether you are pitching an idea to a client, negotiating for a pay raise, or bidding for a new project, employing ethical tactics is important. Negotiations by nature are uncertain as one is really not aware of the desired outcome of those on the other side. There are always some tactics both sides employ which can be sometimes deceptive and can lead to negative consequences. That said there are also things one can always do to improve the quality of a negotiation. And one way to do so is to identify unethical tactics and be aware of what motivates them.
The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple — Oscar WildeTweet
Ethical Vs unethical
A fair negotiation is something where both sides allow each other to put up an effective agreement while maintaining integrity and fairness, while they aim for a win-win outcome. It implies striving to build a reputation for treating others fairly and honestly. Ethics in negotiation are always applicable and it is important to be as truthful and honest as possible even while reserving the option to withhold key information about your position.
Sometimes we justify our behaviour in a negotiation and tend to overlook certain unethical means. For instance, you may claim that your product is measurably better than that of your competitor’s, even when it isn’t, or when you request a reduction in the quoted price, a seller may claim that he has other higher offers, when he might not have any. Some people pretend to have a line up of highly paying job offers to seek a raise in salary.
What motivates usage of unethical tactics
It is a known fact that everyone uses tactics in negotiation. The tactics one uses may or may not be improper, depending on their individual reasoning and circumstances, but one becomes unethical when the tactics they use are meant to deceive or harm others.
Sometimes the people involved in a negotiation turn their self-standards on and off thereby allowing themselves to behave immorally and justify their unethical behaviour. Certain organisational pressures to “just do what it takes to get the job done” or considering your perceptions of your counterpart’s ethics as inaccurate may lead to such behaviours.
Other times the motives of the people negotiating affect their behaviours. The person who is with a power motive often demonstrates a competitive behaviour and gains an advantage if the other is not aware that unethical tactics are being used. For instance, some minor forms of lies or misrepresentation of one’s true position may be ethically acceptable sometimes.
When motivated to be competitive, some people see such behaviours as appropriate. And when both sides are competitively motivated, they have even a greater tendency to employ more such tactics.
Some of the unethical tactics used in negotiation
Competitive bargaining is considered ethical, but however, if it is meant to deceive or coerce, it may be seen as unethical in any given situation. Similarly, using a tactic that intentionally affects the emotional state of the other side in an attempt to sway them may also be seen as unethical tactic. Outright deception and falsification are generally considered unethical. Some other tactics that are seen as potentially inappropriate in a negotiation include,
- Deception by Omission is a strategy in which a person does not convey his or her true preferences and allows other to arrive at a conclusion.
- Misrepresentation by commission is where a person deliberately misleads his or her opponent.
- Backing out of a negotiation agreement and making or revoking an offer in bad faith are generally viewed as unethical by those who are affected.
- Inappropriate information collection or presenting selective information to create a negative reaction in the other side.
- Bluffing is one such unethical tactic where a fact or a position is misrepresented to achieve a desired reaction in the other person.
- Nickel-and diming is another tactic which involves asking for more favours or resources after a negotiation has ended.
What leads to ethical problems
Many cognitive biases stand in the way of us choosing or determining whether a course of behaviour is ethical or not. For instance, some of us approach discussions with the expectation of more egocentric bias in others than in oneself. Or the belief that we see those who question the information we present as uninformed, irrational, or biased. Some common biases that lead to ethical problems are:
- Illusion of superiority. We tend to view ourselves and our actions much more favourably than others view them. As a result, we focus on our positive characteristics and downplay our shortcomings. To put it differently, many of us believe we are most ethical, intelligent, honest, courteous and fair than others.
- Illusion of control. It describes our tendency to believe that we have more control over events than we really do. We often feel we can control outcomes and this can lead to a type of fallacy. This can also give rise to ethical problems when people make unreasonable claims that cannot be met.
- Overconfidence effect. This is a natural bias towards believing that we are better at something than we actually are. It can distort belief in the accuracy of an estimation of how long it will take to get something done, or judgment about our intelligence compared to others.
- Prejudice. In negotiations, your preconceived feeling towards a person based solely on that person’s class, age or culture can make you discard details to form generalities.
- The generalisation. Generalising facts presented by other side at the negotiating table, because you assume the stereotype is true for each individual present in the group.
- Negativity bias. In negotiation, if you are of the notion that negative elements have a greater effect on your psychological state, than neutral or positive things, than you may resort to unethical means to meet your ends.
- Expectation bias. This is to believe and act on data that agrees with your expectations for the desired outcome and to discard that which conflicts with those expectations.
How to remain ethical in a negotiation
By not being ethical in a negotiation process, you not only risk your reputation but also make others doubt your integrity and trustworthiness. Here are some strategies to identify and minimise the likelihood of indulging in unethical behaviours.
Build a relationship
You are less likely to use unethical tactics when you take time to get to know the other in a negotiation. Since building a relationship enhances trust and understanding, it won’t elicit dishonest responses. Also, both sides involved will be more careful in not indulging for the fact that relationship will be damaged if the other finds any such behaviour.
One way to go about is to actively listen to understand the other side’s interests even when you have your best alternatives to offer. And people view a proposal less risky and more acceptable when they have a personal connect with their counterpart. Forging a relationship enhances reliability and results in both sides responding with trust and treat each other with respect.
Know your best alternatives and walk away point.
It is important to begin your negotiation by setting a personal ethical standard for your behaviour. Determining how ethical you want to be in advance makes you aware of which behaviours are off-limits and help you overcome ethical dilemmas when they arise. Also, by reaching an accurate understanding of the zone of your possible agreement, or ZOPA, you can come up with your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. This also helps you determine what your walk away point for a negotiation is. This way, you can ensure making decisions that meet your standard.
Commit to being honest and trustworthy
How ethical a person is going to be also depends on how lucrative the reward could be. Higher rewards often tempt you to lie or adopt to unethical means. Also, if someone is competitive rather than cooperative, he or she is more likely to be driven with contention or suspicion rather than trust and good will. Another thing is that when you are less certain of the information you present, the more likely it is to be aggressive and deceitful to compensate for the uncertainty.
Commit yourself to be truthful without being misleading. And when you think unethical behaviour is a possibility, make a commitment to communicate what you expect out of a negotiation. Inform the other side that you intend to conduct yourself in a fair and honest manner and that you would expect them to reciprocate in the same manner.
Respond instead of justifying
Negotiations may cause a negotiator to adjust his or her position, interests , priorities and preferences. If you think that the other side is resorting to deceptive tactics, ask probing questions and phrase the question in different ways. Draw a line for the other to back off. You can confront, test or call them on their deceptive tactic. This can be done in a conflictive or a non conflictive approach. Discuss what you see and you can ask the other to change to more honest behaviours. Before you negotiate assess what standards might apply and whether your counterpart will have same norms in mind.
Check your own biases.
It is important to recognise and overcome your own biases. Gauge whether a course of action is ethical or not. Here are some questions to ask yourself to know the boundaries between right and wrong and to identify your ethical standards. Would I like if others reciprocate or treat me this way? Would I be comfortable if my decisions or actions were fully made public? Would I be comfortable telling this to someone close?Would I advice anyone in my situation to act in this way?How would this tactic be perceived from a neutral third party perspective?
When you move beyond assumptions or biases, you can really learn other side’s interests and preferences so as to add value to your negotiation process. And avoid making gains at the expense of the other side’s.
Keep your emotions in check
Our emotions influence how we negotiate. The more you base them on your emotions, the more tempted you are to give into your perceptions of the other. A study revealed that even the most experienced negotiators have conflicted feelings. For instance, anxiety over unknowns, self-doubt about performance, or feeling of pessimism regarding other side’s trustworthiness may lead to misrepresentation or false promises.
Recognise that your perceptions of your counterpart’s ethics may be inaccurate. Individuals who are with a positive attitude tend to put more trust in each other and they try their best to facilitate ethical negotiations. Slowing down and keeping an open mind to question your perceptions can help you navigate your emotions.
Use a collaborative approach rather than competitive
The approach you take towards persuading the other often determines how ethical you remain in the process. Being competitive in your approach, which often is a norm when there is fixed amount to be gained or in a win-lose scenario, one usually might resort to unethical tactics. Any potential information each side has might be used to exploit the other.
On the contrary, if you adopt a collaborative approach, you can be more integrative of other’s interests or priorities. In other words, being collaborative makes you more principled, interest-based and future focused. This also results in building long-term relationships while seeking a fair and ethical means.
Questions for Self-reflection
How ethical and unethical do you try to be in your negotiations?
What emotions could throw you off balance in a negotiation?
How often do you justify usage of unethical tactics?
Do you try getting to know your counterpart?
What are some of your strategies to remain ethical in a negotiation?
What strategies do you apply when others appear to act irrationally or unethically?
Negotiations are often complex with many factors playing a role in the outcomes. And all of them does leave space for some deception that need not necessarily be detrimental for either sides negotiating. However, justifying unethical behaviours undermines the intent and fairness of the process. It is more up to the individuals whether or not to make ethical choices. And it depends on the tactics you employ and how willing you are in avoiding inappropriate techniques. The quality of outcomes increases when one is willing to be honest and follow ethical means of negotiation.