Company Doctor: The gender guard

I am often asked whether men or women are better negotiators.

According to the research done by Dina W. Pradel, Hannah Riley Bowles and Kathleen L. McGinn in an article titled “When Gender Changes the Negotiation,” gender is not a reliable predictor of negotiation performance. Neither women nor men perform better or worse across all negotiations.

However, certain types of negotiation can set the stage for differences in outcomes negotiated by men and by women, particularly when the opportunities and limits of the negotiation are unclear and situational cues in these ambiguous situations trigger different behaviors by men and women.

These differences can create huge inequities over time. Awareness of the factors that create gender-related advantages and disadvantages can help you mitigate their consequences.

The standing hypothesis in business has been that women negotiate differently than men. After teaching negotiations at Keller Graduate School, DeVry University, for more than 10 years and conducting numerous corporate training seminars with some of Wisconsin’s most successful firms, I have been able to assemble data that indicates that there are subtle but significant differences between how the genders approach and execute a negotiation. There are marked differences in how women and men communicate during a negotiation.

Historically, women have been portrayed as the weaker sex in movies and literature. If you take that approach into a negotiation, you will be not only surprised but will find yourself at quite a disadvantage.

The data indicates that women on average are not as distributive (concerned with winning) but are more collaborative (concerned with the relationship) in their approach to a negotiation. Women are more apt to accommodate the other party in a negotiation, but when the negotiation gets heated, they are more likely to withdraw and offer a compromise. The data also indicates that women are 8 percent more likely to withdraw from a heated negotiation than men.

Many of the comments submitted by women in pre-seminar and class questionnaires support this propensity to withdraw. One respondent stated, “If I am not comfortable with the person(s) on the other side of the negotiation I will resort to a ‘yes man’ mode and be a bit of a pushover.” Also, “I give in far too easily because I do not like causing conflict.” One respondent felt she was perceived, “as a push over. I think because I don’t like for conflict to be an ongoing thing.”

Independent research supports the female negotiating profile I have developed from my seminars and classes. In her article, “Negotiating through the glass ceiling” Dr. Yael Itzhaki, of Tel Aviv University states she found that women may be more skilled at business negotiations than their masculine counterparts. She carried out simulations of business negotiations among 554 Israeli and American management students at Ohio State University, in New York City, and in Israel.

Dr. Itzhaki found that “women are more generous negotiators, better co-operators and are motivated to create win-win situations.” The results of her Ph.D. thesis project indicated that in certain groupings, women offered better terms than men to reach an agreement and women were good at facilitating interaction between the parties.

Dr.Itzhaki says women have unique skills to offer. They’re great listeners, they care about the concerns of the other side, and they’re generally more interested in finding a win-win situation to the benefit of both parties than male negotiators. Her statements are supported by the data that I have assembled. Male negotiators score higher on the defeat (win-lose) scale than women. Women are more concerned with substance and creating an agreement in which both parties experience a positive outcome and a relationship is maintained.

In another article Susan Pravda a managing partner of the Boston office of Foley & Lardner strongly believes that women have an edge over men at the negotiating table. “We can be more accessible as people, instantly,” she said. “We usually have a greater ability to befriend the other side and quite frankly, I think most people enjoy the difference. They get a kick out of the fact that it’s not business-as-usual.”

Ms. Pravda states that her advantage is that, like most women, she schmoozes pretty well. So it’s easier for her to break the ice and build a better rapport with people. Also, she has found that a lot of men actually find it easier to talk to women. And if she can take advantage of that, you better believe she will.

Ms. Pravda thinks there are three major strengths she brings to the negotiating table. First, she tends to be very creative and that is key to solving problems that come up. Second, she is tough, but in a different way than what is characteristically considered ‘male toughness.’ She is tough in that she takes tough positions and tries to represent her clients to the fullest extent of her abilities.

The third skill Pravda brings to a negotiation, and which she believes is critical to success, is the ability to listen. “I’ve learned both from personal experience and from training a lot of young associates when to stop talking and when to start listening,” she said.

Active listening is a skill, one that is critical to a successful negotiation. In my experience I have found that women tend to be better listeners than their male counterparts. It appears that men are usually thinking of the next question and not listening to the answer to their current question.

Dina W. Pradel and her associates found in her research that one gender trigger that may favor women over men is playing the role of agent (advocating for others) as opposed to playing the role of principal (advocating for themselves). Her research suggests that women perform better when negotiating on behalf of others than they do when negotiating for themselves; no such difference emerges among male negotiators. Women benefit when they approach negotiations in entirely different ways than men do. The differences already outlined will often give female negotiators an edge.

As men we need to better understand how women prepare and execute negotiations. If we do, we will be able to achieve better results and develop stronger relationships with our female counterparts in a business negotiation situation.

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