Negotiation Tactics from a Social Capital Standpoint – Kogod Now
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Kogod Now / Faculty Research  / Negotiation Tactics from a Social Capital Standpoint
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Negotiation Tactics from a Social Capital Standpoint

Whether sealed with a handshake, a million-dollar contract, or a string of curses, every business deal is a reflection of trust. Both parties trust that the other will hold up their end of the bargain.

How is trust built? A lot of it comes down to social capital—the result of interactions through time and how each party feels about the other.

Assistant Professor Alexandra Mislin explores social capital in her research, including how it is negatively impacted by emotional misdirection— and, on the flip side, how negotiators can create more trust before reaching the table.

Do a Google search for “best negotiation tactics” and 80 percent of the results will be tips on how to emotionally manipulate the person on the other side of the table. Negotiators will do whatever it takes to get the best deal possible, even faking anger or hostility towards the other party.

“Strategic anger has long been considered a good tactic to claim value in a negotiation,” Mislin said. “But when applied to social capital, it becomes pretty evident that this strategy can lead to serious consequences downstream.”

Mislin explored the impact of emotional contagion and blowback effects on social capital with researchers from the University of New Hampshire, the University of Richmond, and Washington University in St. Louis.


Feelings can pass from person to person and can affect business relationships.

“There’s a lot of research that shows emotions are contagious; that’s why we, as humans, are attracted to happy people,” Mislin said. “It only makes sense that being around angry people spreads negative emotions as well, even when that anger is initially fake.”

This emotional contagion can infect everyone at the bargaining table, including the person who set the emotion free in the first place, escalating the conflict rapidly.

“Strong emotions by their nature are difficult to control, even when they start off as ‘fake,’” said Rachel Campagna, assistant professor at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire and one of Mislin’s co-authors.

“People don’t realize just how easy it is to lose control of strong emotions, especially anger, and are often surprised when they find themselves becoming truly angry at their negotiation partner,” she said. The researchers call this impact of false emotions “the blowback effect.” They set out to see just how it impacts relationships through time. They studied the impact of emotional contagion on social capital through a preprogrammed negotiation simulation. Sixty-two adults were paired with preprogrammed computers to negotiate an employment contract via text message.

Half the participants received hostile messages from their negotiation counterpart, while the control group received neutral messages. The researchers found their hypothesis was confirmed: the participants who received the hostile messages felt angry while the participants who received the neutral messages remained unemotional.

“Even over a computer, these false emotions were contagious. Even as a conservative measure, emotional contagion was influencing negotiation outcomes,” Mislin said.

Similar studies were also conducted using pairs of human participants and the added emotional misrepresentation of happiness and cooperation. Again, the researchers found that the emotional contagion of misrepresented anger resulted in diminished returns for all parties. They also found that misrepresented happiness and cooperation was worth the deceit; it helped build social capital and increased the likelihood of both parties getting what they wanted.

“The prevailing mindset of negotiation has always been ‘the fixed pie’ ideal, the belief that there’s only so much available for a negotiation outcome,” said co-author Dejun Tony Kong, an assistant professor at both the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond.

“But the reality is that the pie is not limited, more slices can be created through cooperation and trust,” he said. “Negotiation isn’t a competition— there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser.”

And it’s a lot easier to keep trust intact than to try to repair it after the damage has been done, the researchers stressed. Rebuilding a soured relationship is like trying to glue a shattered vase—it looks good from across the room but up close every crack is visible.

“There’s an emotional recall effect at play,” Mislin said. “While the feeling of anger isn’t lingering all the time, when those two negotiators come back to the table down the road, those hostile feelings are going to resurface and impact that new deal.”

“On a subconscious level, we’re always remembering the little things, the small favors and niceties shared between ourselves and others,” Mislin said. “We mentally track our social capital.”

The reach of personal social capital is growing as well, Kong said.

“We’re living in huge networks now. Every one of us is embedded in a living social network,” he said. “Every day we’re negotiating within these networks—from salary talks with our boss to holiday plans with the in-laws—and so every day we’re shifting the balance of our social capital.”

A healthy stock of social capital is also crucial for a deal’s eventual implementation. It’s impossible for a deal or contract to cover every relevant aspect of the agreement.

“There’s this idea that social capital can be dismissed, that walking away from the table with an agreement is enough,” Mislin said. “But that couldn’t be more wrong.”

“If I’m not willing to work with you in the future because of your hostile attitude at the bargaining table, or if I enter into the next negotiations trying to settle the score, then you’re going to end up losing out in the long run.”


Typically, negotiators have a store of social capital before bargaining begins, built up through interactions outside negotiations, such as trading best wishes for family holidays or discussing the latest weather.

Working with a team of researchers from Techniche Universität Müchen in Germany, Mislin wanted to see how such small talk before a negotiation impacted social capital.

It’s established that small talk develops mutual liking and provides the foundation for trust to be built. Mislin and her fellow researchers were curious to see if the gender of those making small talk impacted social capital and final results.

“There’s this inherent understanding that men and women talk about different things…but there isn’t a lot of concrete data that shows what this means for negotiations,” Mislin said.

They went into their studies with the hypothesis that a negotiator’s gender would influence whether or not small talk was beneficial, and they were correct.

“We really saw a boost in positive negotiation outcomes for men when they engaged in a little small talk beforehand,” she said. “Even a very short conversation went a long way towards getting a better deal.”

It all comes down to expected gender behaviors and stereotypes, according to the researchers. Because women are expected to be more communicative, they’re anticipated to make small talk and thus earn no extra social capital for engaging in “chit chat” before a negotiation.

“It’s not really notable behavior when a woman makes small talk,” Mislin said. “So if the behavior doesn’t stand out, it can’t really have an impact on final outcomes.”

But men “receive a bonus” for the same communal behaviors, the researchers found.

“In general, men are perceived as more hostile, more aggressive—especially in the context of a negotiation. Even a little bit of chit chat can go a long way to dispel that expectation,” Mislin explained.

While men received benefits for engaging in small talk that women did not, the researchers discovered that neither gender was punished for skipping the chit chat and getting right down to business, despite it being a variation from gender norms for women.

So what does this mean for both genders at the negotiation table? Small talk can be another tool in the arsenal for men, one that builds social capital and increases their likelihood of beneficial gains from negotiation. Women may need to find other ways of cultivating a positive regard in their negotiation counterparts.

Mislin said that bringing a good deal to the table is best for all rather than using social capital alone. “When it comes down to it, negotiation is about striking a good deal that will be implemented,” Mislin said. “Good social capital goes a long way towards implementation; some negotiators just have an easier time building that than others.” KN mark


Even though chit chat does not appear to build the same social capital in negotiations for women as it does for men, women can build this capital in other ways. Here are tips for businesswomen on maximizing the potential of a negotiation:

  • INTERACTION: When meeting a negotiation partner for the first time, smile, maintain eye contact, and find a common ground for discussion.
  • BALANCE: Express a willingness to help the other parties meet their most important interests, while also outlining those most important to you.
  • ASK QUESTIONS: Be sure you understand the other party’s demands, and explain your perspective.
  • DO YOUR HOMEWORK: Make sure you recognize the other party’s culture and company history—beyond the basics of their technical terms and jargon.
  • MANAGE YOUR OWN EMOTIONS: Even if your counterpart becomes angry, maintain your composure to avoid escalating the conflict.

— Laura Herring and Alexandra A. Mislin

“Strategic Consequences of Emotional Misrepresentation in Negotiation: The Blowback Effect,” William P. Bottom, Rachel L. Campagna, Dejun Tony Kong, and Alexandra A. Mislin, and “Should we Chit Chat? Benefits of Small Talk for Male but Not Female Negotiators,” Tanja Hentschel, Alexandra Mislin, Claudia Peus, and Brook A. Shaughnessy are under review.

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