A good negotiator always seeks a great outcome. But some people will do almost anything to win, resorting to unethical tactics to achieve the result they want. They will lie about their options, misrepresent the quality of their products or make false promises. This kind of behaviour may be effective in the short term but it corrodes trust, harms relationships and ultimately damages company reputations. Understanding where it comes from could help prevent it.
That was the starting point for some research I carried out with Margaret Lee, PhD candidate in Organisational Behaviour at London Business School; Marko Pitesa, Associate Professor, Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources at Singapore Management University, and Stefan Thau, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.
We began by examining the scholarly research on unethical behaviour in negotiations, and in particular the literature on gender differences in the tendency to be unethical. The evidence was puzzling. Some researchers had found that men negotiate more unethically than women. Others reported no gender difference whatsoever. What could explain this discrepancy?
We built our explanation for gender differences in unethical behaviour in negotiations on the evolutionary theory of intra-sexual competition (i.e., the competition to gain opportunities to mate with others), and the reasoning that men are less valuable in an evolutionary sense. Men therefore needed to compete more with other men when it came to finding a mate and might therefore behave dishonestly more often in certain situations to win in this competition. . Of course we’re more than our evolutionary past but it’s naïve to imagine that our modern psychology is independent of the processes that have shaped humans over millions of years.
Now let’s fast forward to the present and see how the legacy of all of this might play out today.
Logic dictates that men would negotiate more unethically in situations where their opponent is an attractive man – in other words, a threat. Conversely, we would not see this effect if they were negotiating against what a man generally rated as less attractive, or a woman. In these latter scenarios, what we call the mating motivation is not salient.
So we set out to investigate the circumstances where men will behave less ethically than women, and those where there will be no difference. If we found that, actually, men weren’t less ethical in the presence of other attractive men compared to all other conditions (i.e., in the presence of women or unattractive men)– or that women were more competitive in negotiations with other women – our hypothesis, based on evolutionary reasoning, would be wrong.
A possible explanation for differences in unethical behaviour
First, we conducted a field survey. We asked 138 employed adults who engaged in negotiation as part of their work a range of questions about their work-life balance. Buried within this was a question about how interested they were in “romantic/sexual activities”. We also asked them how often they engaged in unethical negotiating behaviour – for example, “Intentionally misrepresent information to your opponent in order to strengthen your negotiating arguments or position.”
We controlled for several variables that we knew might skew the results, such as age, mood, status and personal power. The result confirmed our best guess: that men negotiated more unethically but only when their mating motivation was high.
Next, we designed an experiment to establish causality—that mating motivation leads to unethical behaviour rather than the two being merely correlated-- by experimentally manipulating mating motivation and examining how it affects unethical negotiation behaviour in a controlled setting. We examined what difference it would make if the opponent were male or female, and if they were attractive or not very. We know from previous research that attractive men present more formidable mating competitors than unattractive men because women desire them more. So in theory men should exhibit less ethical behaviour when they negotiate with more attractive male opponents.
In this experiment we sat individuals in front of a computer and told them they would take part in two unrelated studies. The first ostensibly focused on facial recognition and consisted of memorising 10 faces and then attempting to identify them later. These 10 pictures were developed in previous research and rated on a scale of 1 to 9 (where 1 was “very unattractive” and 9 was “very attractive”). The logic behind this was that asking participants to view pictures of attractive individuals should stimulate their sexual and romantic interest.
Immediately after viewing the photos, the participants were asked to report their mood (ostensibly to examine for mood effects on memory) using a questionnaire. We embedded two extra items into this: “sexual arousal” and “romantic arousal”, to establish how stimulated they were in that respect.
Finally we asked them to carry out the main negotiation task. We told participants that they and another participant (there was no other participant in reality) would be assigned to represent different parties in a seller-buyer negotiation. Then we told all of them that they had been randomly assigned to the buyer role, and invited them to read a profile of the participant they would be negotiating with. This profile included a photo.
We then invited participants to negotiate on behalf of a hotel group wishing to purchase a historic property from its owner, who, they were told, didn’t want it to be used commercially. In doing so, we set up an incentive for the negotiator to lie about the intended use of the property. We reminded the participants that they were not obligated to be truthful or to lie about the intended use. All participants then wrote a message communicating the purported planned use of the property.
Their responses were then analysed for whether the buyer explicitly deceived the seller. As anticipated, men negotiated more unethically than women – but only when their mating motivation was activated, i.e., when they were negotiating against other men. And the effect was stronger when the man they were negotiating against was attractive, and thus a stronger threat.
Outright lies vs dodging the issue
In a third study, we introduced degrees of unethical behaviour by framing the experiment such that participants had another option that didn’t involve lying outright. They could instead dodge the issue by using the statement, “The client I represent is not looking to maintain the original use of the Bullard Houses property as luxury residences. However, I’m sure we will be able to discuss the matter and come to an agreement.”
Interestingly, in this version of the experiment, where there was an option of behaving unethically but to a lesser extent, women showed a similar pattern to men. In this scenario, they too engaged in unethical behaviour when mating motivation was activated and their negotiating opponent was attractive. This result is consistent with the argument that women are also driven by competition for mates but that, from an evolutionary perspective, the costs to women of behaving unethically have been higher. In short, women are expected to behave better and they have traditionally suffered worse consequences for violating social norms.
What can we take from this? It’s important to note that other studies, which look at people’s striving for achievements, show no difference between the genders. Women strive just as much for achievements. They are just as ambitious as men, they don’t want less. Even in negotiations, when they’re asking on someone else’s behalf, women are no less assertive than men. And they don’t get a worse outcome. It’s just that our results show that men lie more when faced with an opponent whom they subconsciously see as a threat.
Lying and unethical behaviour are obviously wrong and to be avoided on account of that. This behaviour is also dangerous for organisations: there is long-term damage to organisations whose employees lie or are otherwise unethical in their negotiations with insiders and outsiders.
In my view it’s important that men be aware of this phenomenon. If they become conscious of this inbuilt tendency, they might be able to override it. If they realise that they feel an internal threat, just stopping and taking a step backwards might give them pause to prevent them doing something wrong. Also, organisational culture may mitigate or heighten unethical behaviours: macho, risk-taking cultures that fuel male competitiveness could well exacerbate the likelihood of unethical behaviour.
It is important to note that our findings and evolutionary reasoning should not be taken to mean that such behaviour by male negotiators is normal or acceptable. Humans have the capacity to regulate their impulses. So unethical behaviour should be sanctioned. Studies like ours are designed to help negotiators and organisations become more aware of circumstances in which unethical behaviour is likelier to occur so that they are better able to regulate them.