Based on Research By Marwan Sinaceur, Hajo Adam, Gerben A. Van Kleef and Adam D. Galinsky

Unpredictable Negotiating Behavior Predictably Leads To More Concessions.

  • Purely hard-nosed negotiation doesn’t work as well as alternating toughness with positivity.
  • Negotiators faced with mood swings feel a loss of control and make greater concessions.
  • Emotional approaches that win concessions in short-term negotiations may not work in the long term.

Level-headed Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise would not have made a good negotiator. According to Hajo Adam, a professor at Rice Business, and colleagues Marwan Sinaceur of ESSEC, Gerben A. Van Kleef of the University of Amersterdam and Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia University, it’s a negotiator’s “emotional inconsistency and unpredictability” that can lead to concessions. Not Vulcan-like emotional control.

That’s essentially because emotional unpredictability on one negotiator’s part makes the other negotiator feel insecure and willing to concede. Historians have noted this tendency dating back to the time of Elizabeth I, when she often showed “baffling” levels of emotional inconsistency during negotiations with foreign powers, and was rewarded by their greater concessions. More recent political leaders, such as Nikita Khrushchev and Charles de Gaulle, have also cultivated auras of unpredictability. Appearing inconsistent and unpredictable, in fact, is a tenet of U.S. military strategy: the U.S. Strategic Command deems such an approach “essential to deterrence.”

The same principles apply to business negotiations.

Previous negotiation research explored the role of unchanging, consistently communicated emotions, such as anger. A good cop/bad cop strategy, in which negotiators alternate anger with happier emotions, leads to better results. But because those studies had not separated the emotions displayed from the offers being made, it wasn’t clear if a negotiator’s acceptance of terms was based on emotional expressions or offers.

In three experiments designed to separate emotions from offers, Adam and his fellow researchers showed a clear link between emotional unpredictability and winning concessions. Unpredictability from one party, they found, led to feelings of “loss of control” on the other side. Insecure negotiators then made weaker demands and greater concessions.

In one experiment, post-graduate business management students sat face to face, negotiating terms of a prospective business venture according to a script. Their proposals regarding profit sharing, manufacturing facilities, etc., remained constant, but the emotions they displayed ranged from constant anger and negativity in one paradigm, to “good cop/bad cop” alterations in the other. As expected, student negotiators whose counterparts displayed emotional shifts felt less control over the procedure, and as a result made greater concessions.

A second experiment honed in on the emotions expressed in a negotiator’s final offer. After a series of emotional switches, a negotiator who closed on a negative note, rather than an upbeat one, got better results.

Of course, taking a Jekyll and Hyde approach to negotiations might create its own problems. What if your unpredictability led your counterpart to think that you’re emotionally unstable, if not crazy? Is this a real risk? Or, less dramatically, what if your fluctuations make the other negotiators not take the process seriously because they don’t think that you do? 

The team’s third experiment indicated that these fears were unfounded. Negotiators, they found, tended to take their counterparts’ level of emotion at face value. They didn’t laugh at the mood swings. 

That’s not to say negotiators should put on their crazy hats before entering talks. It’s true that in short-term, or even one-shot, dealings that fluctuating between basic emotions such as happiness, anger and disappointment can be a winning formula. But, the researchers note, negotiations that take place over a longer period might require a more measured approach.

Finally, psychological approaches to negotiation may not trump the power of a competing offer. If your counterpart already has an attractive offer in hand, your ups-and-downs likely won’t faze her.

Those exceptions aside, the evidence now shows that in negotiations, it’s better to leave your opposite number guessing. A little insecurity never hurt anybody – as long as it’s on the other side.

Hajo Adam is an assistant professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Sinaceur, M., Adam, H., Van Kleef, G. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2013). The advantages of being unpredictable: How emotional inconsistency extracts concessions in negotiation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 498-508.