Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 9, 2018
I spend a lot of my time on this earth expressing gratitude. I am a very fortunate fellow. Check out Warren Buffett who said he won the “ovarian lottery” when he was born — white, healthy, intelligent and in America.
I also spend a lot of time negotiating. I am a “fixer.” I clean up messes (some of my own making, mostly of others), and I am always negotiating. Well, it turns out that according to a recent Harvard Business School report, those two don’t mix very well. The study finds that “expressing gratitude can be costly in competitive interactions; people infer that grateful counterparts are forgiving and therefore, they are more likely to exploit their counterparts for selfish gain.”
Now, I recognize that they did a study, and they proved their thesis, but I want to take the other side and suggest that demonstrating “appreciation” during a negotiation improves your chances of getting to your goal. The Harvard gang talk about the “negotiator’s dilemma,” namely the tension between collaborating with the other side and trying to drive a nail through their head.
Of course, expressing gratitude in the normal social world of the living strikes all of us as a positive emotion. It is nice to be nice. But in negotiation, the Harvard study says the other side will play you for a sap.
I just finished reading “Thinking in Bets” by Annie Duke, world champion poker player. Duke would tell you that reading the emotions of the people at the table has won her many hands and much money. Her book is designed to help you make smarter decisions when you don’t have all the facts.
She uses the analogy of a chess board — where you can see everything — compared to a poker table, where you can only see what is exposed. This seems to be true in most negotiations as well. I sold a company a long time ago for a lot of money when I only had a couple of dollars left in the bank. (They neglected to look at our balance sheet).
There is not much gratitude at a poker table where clearly “emotional expressions” inform negotiation behavior. Duke and I are all in on that, but an expression of gratitude for conceding a point by the other side does not necessarily indicate weakness. (Check out the mind tricks in golf when conceding a putt of a certain distance to your opponent.)
On the other hand, in contrast to gratitude, when the other side expresses anger, the study suggests that punishment and deception are used as retribution. But we also know from other studies that a well-placed expression of outrage can actually be constructive in bringing both sides to their senses. The Harvard study says that “expressions of gratitude trigger selfish behavior.”
In fact, it is sometimes the opposite, because expressing gratitude signals that you are listening and understanding. I am not arguing for being a doormat, but simply being “neutral,” acknowledging nothing (the default position in the paper) does not do much for the “I feel your pain” connection to the other side.
The paper goes on to say that grateful counterparts have a tendency to be perceived as more forgiving, more inclined to cancel a debt, look the other way, settle for less. Gratitude invites “self-serving deception, characterized by lies that advantage the liar at the expense of the target.” (Anybody you know?).
In the end, the study says “expressing gratitude in competitive interactions increases your vulnerability to opportunistic exploitation.” I read the whole paper and yes, they can prove it, but I don’t agree. If in a negotiation on a point, I say “that works perfectly for us, thank you,” I do not think that disadvantages me to the next point. In fact, in negotiation, I am working to find a simpatico, an understanding, a common ground to build on. (I will offer that “manipulative gratitude” might be useful, but that is for another study, I think).
Their study did not have the benefit of real people in real negotiations. They used Amazon Mechanical Turk. They concede that there are nuances around similar words, like warmth, niceness or politeness. In my final analysis, I am still a sucker for “thank you.”
Rule No. 555: No way, die and pound sand.