Bridging Cultural Divides at the Negotiating Table

Winning Negotiation Strategies | Illustration: Norman Gracia

IESE Prof. Kandarp Mehta highlights three main archetypes – dignity, honor and face cultures – that directly shape how people negotiate in distinct cultural contexts. | Illustration: Norman Gracia

Despite painstaking preparations and the best intentions to reach win-win results, negotiations sometimes derail. Build rapport, practice active listening and explore options instead of immediately making offers, advise the experts. This is hard enough as it is, so what happens when cultural differences are added into the mix?

“When we negotiate with people from other cultures, we sometimes make assumptions on their intentions and aspirations that may or may not be true,” says Prof. Kandarp Mehta of IESE’s Entrepreneurship Department and Negotiation Teaching Unit. “To reach outcomes that are satisfying to all parties involved, we need to expand our awareness beyond superficial cultural stereotypes and better understand cultural prototypes.”

In this regard, Prof. Mehta highlights three main archetypes – dignity, honor and face cultures – that directly shape how people negotiate in distinct cultural contexts.

  1. Dignity: Based on a rational data-driven approach, dignity cultures stress the value of the individual. In cultures where the dignity norm prevails, negotiators need to understand and trust the person sitting opposite them before they engage in any type of business transaction. North America, Northern Europe and Australia-New Zealand are examples of regions where dignity norms prevail and individual dignity takes precedence at the negotiating table.
  2. Honor: In societies where the honor norm is dominant, protecting the honor of the individual and the community is crucial, which means you not only represent yourself, you represent the entire group. Prevalent in South America, Northern Africa and the Middle East, honor-driven negotiations often center on offers, substantiating offers and getting concessions.
  3. Face: Regions where the face norm is dominant are found primarily in East Asian societies like China and Japan. In these cultures, stable social hierarchies and social cohesion are the overriding social constructs, and negotiations are far more indirect, complex and multifaceted due to a desire to save face and avoid confrontation. Moreover, they often address a number of issues at the same time.

In situations without a fundamental cultural awareness, negotiations tend to be stressful and competitive. According to Prof. Mehta, “Recent studies indicate that, even when negotiators achieve their initial objectives, they are often unsatisfied with the outcome. The underlying lack of trust during the process makes them question whether they truly attained the best possible outcome.”

Gaining a deeper understanding of these prototypes is beneficial, yet it’s also important to point out that they rarely exist in their purest form.

Culture isn’t really a matter of citizenship, nationality, race or ethnicity. In essence, it is a set of beliefs and norms that drives our behavior, which also includes the cultures specific to distinct communities, organizations or sectors.”

Winning Negotiation Strategies” is a blended program that equips managers with the personal frameworks, “mediator mindset” and techniques to excel in any negotiation context. The next edition will commence on November 25, 2019 with a two-week online module, followed by a three-day onsite session on IESE’s Barcelona campus.


Written by business communicator and editor Suzanne Hogseth

This post is also available in: Spanish

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