Not such a big deal – A look at negotiating across cultures

Written by Bill Reed, Senior Associate at WorldWork Ltd.

Negotiating is horrible, isn’t it! It’s full of aggression and deception. Untruth after untruth: the “other party” wants to trick me, get one over on me. I can’t believe a word s/he says. Get me out of here!

I spent from 1982 to last year working in a communication skills training company as a trainer and then as a salesman, then sales director, finally selling on my own behalf, running my own business. When I asked HR/L&D managers about the needs of their colleagues, I tried my best to persuade them to try out our presentation skills programmes. Happily, we sold literally hundreds over the years, the learners only too happy to say they needed help with speaking on their feet. I also offered negotiation skills training, only to find that, whilst participants were happy to admit their faults when presenting, they were not so keen to admit that they were bad at negotiating, as this seemed to imply that they lacked business nous, acumen, savvy. So, it is a deeper level, more personal skill.

Negotiations are typically portrayed on film or TV as situations where some kind of trickery is at the heart of the process. Unsurprisingly, then, many people’s understanding of negotiation can too easily be based on Win:Lose scenarios. The bad guy tries some dirty tricks; the good guy outsmarts him in the final reel. In my own experience of seeking to find agreements with my clients, it struck me that this “Wild West” view was wrong. Most real negotiations may indeed be tough but certainly not dishonest, aggressive or life-changing.

So, the first question we need to ask ourselves is “What kind of negotiation is this?”  Let’s have a look at some scenarios:

Scenario 1: New for old

Your car has finally had it! After 5 years of seeing its value decrease month by month, you just have to face the fact that you need a more reliable and cheaper-to-run car. You know which one you want, but it’s hard to afford the projected price on the website. You need to get the best amount for the old one in order to afford the asked-for price of the new one. You face a negotiation!  The car dealer is a professional; they have years of experience in handling amateurs like you. How do you feel? Excited? Stimulated? Fearful? Nervous?

Of course, they are very tricky. You might think that means you too can use any trick you can think of to improve your position, because you need never see the dealer again in your whole life. Is that sort of behaviour OK where you come from? Might you feel guilty about trying to claim more value from the deal than the dealer’s trainee who perhaps earns considerably less than you?

Scenario 2: Divorce

Your partner and you have been together for a long, long time; but it’s just not working any more. You spend your entire time arguing and it’s getting worse. You decide it’s the end and divorce lawyers are primed for battle. The lawyers are paid by the hour and are perfectly happy continuing the battle but whatever pot there is between you and your partner when it comes to assets and income will only diminish if the fighting goes on too long. Short and sharp is probably better.

Scenario 3:  A matter of principle

You are a trades union lead negotiator. The battle for “fair pay for a fair day’s work” just goes on and on. You are dealing with a management team who have been instructed to play hard for every penny so as to maintain a good share value and dividend at the end of the year. It’s the same every year, so you are seeking innovative new ways to boost the outcome for your members; but the simple fact is, you will never accept the views of what you see as a “dictatorial management” that sees things very differently. It’s an ideological matter.

Scenario 4: Commercial deal

You are the purchasing manager of an automotive company. It’s your job to procure excellent quality car parts at the best price and at exactly the moment you need them (your manufacturing warehouses are less than a third of the size they used to be in this era of “just-in-time” delivery). In fact, on-time delivery and rapid response from suppliers are both more important to you than the top-line selling price; but the salesperson from the suppliers doesn’t know that yet. In the end, it could be that some kind of trade-off might end any deadlock you experience in the everyday process of finding durable agreements between two or more parties, i.e…… negotiation.

The message: We need to understand what kind of scenario we are facing. We need to jump into our process helicopter and look down from above.

Negotiation skills apply mostly to the bottom right of this diagram.

We all negotiate. With our partner, with our kids, with our boss/subordinate. Even with our friends. Culture plays a significant part in establishing the arena of the process – it could be national, organisational, industrial cultural values that set unspoken limits to behaviour. Inside these boundaries, we can read each other’s behaviour and adjust as necessary. But what if the other party comes from a significantly different set of values? A culture of which you know little?

Most academic listing of cultural differences will include individualism, collectivism, hierarchy (power distance), universalism vs particularism, high vs low context and attitude to risk. Across the world, these variances apply to the process of negotiation as much as they do to any other form of communication. Negotiating in, say, Bulgaria may be significantly different from negotiating in South Africa or Canada. For example, how quickly do people move from first exchanges to formal negotiation? Some want to jump right in, others need to get to know the other party at several hierarchical levels before serious discussions take place. Also, how significant is the contract? What level of finality does it have? And anyway, how strong is the rule of law in your target country? And, importantly, what about Win:Win? Do all parties operate on the basis of shared interests and mutuality of aims?

In the 1970s, Harvard instigated an extensive project to consider a principled approach to negotiation to be applied to any situation. It may be significant that this was at a time when Western corporations and Eastern conglomerates were beginning to eye each other’s markets – financial and low-cost production at the time. One of the (in my opinion) very best results of this work was Getting to Yes, by Fischer and Ury. The book essentially proposes that there are five main principles that will, if shared, go some way towards guaranteeing a positive result for both/all parties. These five are:

  • Separate the people from the problem
  • Focus on interests, not positions
  • Invent options for mutual gain (“enlarge the pie!”)
  • Insist on objective criteria (where opinions differ)
  • Make sure you have a solid BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement)

These are rational principles, easily memorised and deployed. A high percentage of those hundreds of business people I have worked with over the years on this subject agreed with this. Please note, however, the use of the word “rational” and ask any interculturalist whether “rationality” is equally admired, sought or accepted around the world. It isn’t. For evidence, see Julian Baggini’s book “How the world thinks” for fascinating insights into prominent influencer cultures and their philosophical difficulties with logic. So, we have yet more levels of complexity and more dimensions to bear in mind as we (increasingly) find ourselves needing to negotiate across national and cultural borders.

My colleagues at WorldWork and I (from Japan, Poland and the UK) have set about developing a blended learning solution to offer to those who operate in the world of international business. In this programme (“Negotiating Across Cultures”), we propose first of all to examine our own attitudes through the use of The International Profiler (TIP®), which provides insight into where we put our energy when working abroad and, through interactive live online modules, think about and practise the skills of negotiation across cultures. Our conclusions so far suggest that the multidimensional challenges are not amenable to easy simplification. But the journey is more than worth the effort. Come and share; come and learn.

Join our free webinar 14 April. This webinar will offer a short overview of the techniques, knowledge and communicative pathways towards the achievement of the complex challenge of international negotiations. Register here.

Find out more about Negotiating Across Cultures blended learning programme on our website and download a detailed brochure outlining the IDEAL Framework (which the course is based on) and the learner journey.

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