Negotiating via email

A study by Professor Don Moore (and colleagues) looked into how to make email negotiations more successful. In particular, Moore wanted to find out how to prevent email negotiations from breaking down. (Don A. Moore, Terri R. Kurtzberg, Leigh L. Thompson, and Michael W. Morris, “Long and Short Routes to Success in Electronically Mediated Negotiations: Group Affiliations and Good Vibrations,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 77 (1), (1999): 22–43.)

Earlier studies have found that negotiators using email, as opposed to negotiators using traditional lines of communication, felt negotiations took longer, felt less satisfaction, and perceived less fairness. Moore wanted to bridge this gap: to allow people to leverage the advantages of remote negotiations without the trust-destroying disadvantages.

In the study, MBA students from Kellogg and Stanford had to conduct negotiations entirely via email without other means of communication. The researchers found that participants could take two measures that dramatically improved their likelihood of success:

• The participants who shared personal information about themselves established better rapport and had more successful negotiations. Even simple biographical details (photo, background, education, and personal interests) and some casual social chatter before the negotiations began made it much more likely that negotiations would be successful. Face to face or online, people like to do business with people they “know”. The researchers also encouraged the participants to use “emoticons”, symbols used to express emotion via email (for example, “;-)” for a wink and “:-I” for indifference).

• Participants who were members of the same business school were much less likely to hit a dead end than people who were negotiating across business schools (Stanford vs. Kellogg). The implication: when negotiating remotely, you should emphasize the groups that you have in common with your counterpart. You may have worked for the same company, lived in the same neighborhood, etc.

Several related psychological patterns create the greater success rate for people who are in a common group. That common group is often a closed group; we discussed earlier the many advantages of functioning inside a closed group.

• People see people who are similar to themselves as more attractive than those who are dissimilar. It is easier to negotiate with people about whom you feel positively.
• Any interaction with another group member is a repeated interaction, not a one-time interaction. Membership in a common group encourages you to be more honest and pleasant with your fellow group members, because you will likely have to see them again. By contrast, sometimes very polite people are inconsiderate and rude when driving, because they know that they are highly unlikely to interact with the other cars’ drivers ever again.
• People are sensitive to their reputation. If you develop a reputation as an unpleasant or dishonest negotiator with a co-worker, that reputation not only impacts future negotiation with her, but is also likely to spread to many other people in your shared group.

Moore found that casual socializing and common group membership provided a basis for a positive relationship. That allowed the participants to express positive feelings for one another, which in turn led to better rapport. Lastly, that better rapport led to more successful negotiations.

Michael Morris and colleagues completed another study which found that negotiators took advantage of email by exchanging more complex, multiple-issue offers than when they negotiated face-to-face. (M. W. Morris, J. Nadler, T. R. Kurtzberg, and L. L. Thompson, “Schmooze or lose: Social friction and lubrication in email negotiations,” Group Dynamics 6 (2002): 89-100.) They could easily email complex documents with all of their changes redlined. However, email reduced rapport-building conversation about contextual issues. For example, it is easier face to face to get a feel for how strongly management at another company is pushing its deal team to complete a particular deal.

Negotiators on email also asked fewer clarifying questions which could prevent misunderstandings and build rapport. Email negotiators compensated for this lack of communication with more explicit statements about the relationship, but these were less effective in preventing mistrust and misunderstanding.

This Morris study also tested two groups of negotiators: one who moved directly into negotiations without any preliminary chat, and one who had a telephone “schmooze” before the negotiation in which they deliberately talked informally and avoided discussing any specifics about the negotiation. Consistent with the Moore study mentioned above, the telephone schmooze gave the participants the chance to plan a cooperative, positive negotiation experience from the outset. They attained better economic and social outcomes than the non-schmoozers.