Negotiating is stereotypically seen as a male domain involving aggressive, winner-takes-all behaviour. But new research by Gillian Ku suggests women could bring a more ethical approach to the table
Women are more ethical in their negotiating behaviour than men, according to new research, and it’s because they have stronger “moral identities”. These identities come from absorbing moral traits – such as being caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest and kind – and integrating them into their sense of self in a stronger way than men. Something psychologists and sociologists refer to as “internalising”.
For any woman who quips: “Tell me something I don’t know”, this finding challenges centuries of male assumptions of dominance in the area of moral thought; thinkers such as Kant and Freud proposed that men were morally superior to women.
It also challenges a workplace ethic built on male stereotypes which characterises negotiations as highly competitive, win-lose endeavours, supported by no-holds-barred strategies encompassing lying and cheating (even though there is no clear evidence to show that this approach gets better results).
And, presumably, there will also be plenty of men who don’t particularly like being referred to as less ethical than women in their negotiating behaviour.
So has Gillian Ku, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, walked into a gender politics minefield with this research? Along with her co-authors Laura J Kray, Professor of Leadership at Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, and Jessica Kennedy, Assistant Professor of Management, Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University.
“From an empirical point of view this isn’t controversial; we didn’t come in with an agenda, we have followed the data and the science behind it isn’t controversial,” says Ku. “How people react to it could be controversial but that would revolve around some of the perceptions and stereotypes that are out there.”
Ku says the research opens the “black box” on a specific corner of gender issues – negotiating behaviour – which plays a part in some of the most pertinent topics of today: why women are paid less than men; the lack of women in top leadership positions; and women’s roles in the workplace.
The good negotiator
She hopes the findings will change the narrative on what it takes to make a good negotiator or a good leader – whether that’s an employee taking part in their annual pay review or the President of the US. And clearly President Trump isn’t currently advancing the case for new ways of negotiating.
“We hear a lot of talk from him and I don’t know how much of that is real or just talk,” says Ku, “but it does portray leadership, and more specifically negotiating, in the realm of, ‘I’m going to make you do what I want you to do and when I get my way I am the winner and you are the loser.’ So that is not a positive thing.”
The research found roughly a 66% probability that a randomly chosen woman will have a stronger moral identity than a randomly chosen man, although this figure doesn’t translate directly into a probability of more ethical behaviour.
And there is a caveat to a women’s moral behaviour in negotiations. The researchers found that financial incentives can overtake moral imperatives in a woman’s motivations and make her behave unethically (ie like a man). This doesn’t come up as a factor for men as, according to the researchers, they are already behaving unethically so the addition of financial incentives doesn’t change their behaviour.
Selling a used car
So how did the researchers reach their conclusions?
First the team used existing research data from more than 19,000 people to establish that women have stronger moral identities than men.
Then they explored gender differences in approaches to negotiation by asking a group of participants how they would behave in selling their used car – a common, high-stakes transaction known to have high potential for deception.
The participants were told their car had both a minor problem – a missing fuel cap – and a larger problem that flared up occasionally with the transmission between gears. They were asked to decide whether they would reveal the car’s problems to a potential buyer who’d contacted them via their advert on Craigslist. To ensure they did not feel pressure to act ethically, they were also given examples of how some degree of deception was not uncommon in car negotiations.
The researchers then measured participants’ “moral disengagement” by rating their response to statements such as: “It’s OK to omit information if the buyer doesn’t ask the right questions” and “Bending the truth is no big deal when you consider that others are engaging in outright fraud”.
They also measured their opportunism with statements such as: “How obligated do you feel to act in a completely trustworthy and honest manner in your dealings with the potential buyer?”
In line with previous research in this field, they found women were less likely to morally disengage and less likely to behave opportunistically than men when selling a used car to a stranger.
The team then pulled these findings together to show the fundamental role of moral identity in creating these gender differences in negotiator ethics.
Securing new recruits
Two subsequent studies tested these findings further by exploring the impact of financial incentives.
The team used a data set from a 2009 study in which participants were asked to carry out a 15-minute role-play simulating a negotiation between a manager and a job candidate. The manager’s aim was to secure the candidate at the lowest possible salary while knowing that the job would be eliminated in six months’ time due to a restructuring (something not known by the candidate).
Meanwhile the candidate was told to value job security and was instructed not to agree to any salary without a guarantee of holding the position for at least two years. Participants in the manager role therefore had an opportunity to lie to the candidate about job stability in order to secure them at the lowest salary. They were also offered different types of incentives in the range of $50 to $150 based on the salaries they negotiated.
The results showed that women’s negotiating behaviour is more affected by the presence of financial incentives than is men’s. We all behave with different motivations, says Ku, and in this situation women’s strong moral identity is being overtaken by financial incentives. Those with weaker moral identities in the first place don’t show so much difference in their behaviour in the face of financial incentives. All of which suggests that this concept of moral identity underlies gender differences in unethical negotiating behaviour.
Valuing ethical behaviour
So what does this all mean in the workplace – and everyday life? Ku hopes it could change the way business is done and make for a better world.
“I like to believe there is room to be ethical as a negotiator and in the long run there may be situations, hopefully many, where it will be beneficial to be ethical,” she says.
“It’s easy to think of negotiating situations where a relationship matters, where it’s not a one-shot deal and you will interact with the person again. In these cases it is important to deal with someone who’s upstanding, who you can trust – and that’s when having someone with high moral identity, who’s going to behave ethically, is a good thing.”