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Personality traits and styles underpin all our behaviour at work. But, Gavin Kennedy shows in this extract from his seminal work: Kennedy on Negotiation, the variables around personality are so huge that, in practical terms, it is impossible to develop a coherent negotiating strategy based on personality.

It is almost trite to acknowledge that personality is an inescapable aspect of human behaviour. We all have at least one personality! That said, is there much else to it? Psychologists answer ‘yes, there is much much more’, and many trainers wholly agree (for some trainers, I suspect personality fills up spare time on their thin programmes ). Some psychologists also complain that not enough attention is ‘given to how personality affects negotiation’.164 The sales pitch for personality research and for its infusion into negotiating training is easy to state.

Personality, of course, affects everything people do. Patterns of behaviour re-occur in many different situations. You display certain traits which, when identified, mark your personality. Your traits are your ‘predispositions to respond in characteristic ways’ and different ‘situations simply trigger what comes “naturally” to each individual’.

If their personality is stable enough, then you could produce predictable responses to different negotiating situations and this may be sufficient for you to secure a better negotiated outcome. If you become aware of your personal traits, and learn how to control or manage them, perhaps you could improve your performance as a negotiator, parent, colleague, or team player?

Moreover, if you could develop the skills of identifying other people’s personalities, especially those you deal with on a regular basis, this too might improve your negotiating performance. With practice, you could improve your ability to ‘read’ someone’s personality from limited acquaintance, and do well even in negotiations with relative strangers. Convinced? Well, as you need to make up your mind about the role of personality in negotiation we will discuss this in more detail.

All of the popular versions of the role of personal traits or styles in negotiation originate from the work of Rubin and Brown,166 who postulated that two variables determine the influence of personality on negotiation. First, there is interpersonal orientation, or the degree of social ability and social awareness:

  • If you are high on this variable then you are responsive to the interpersonal aspects of your relationship with the other negotiator.
  • If you are low on interpersonal orientation then you are non-responsive.

The highly interpersonally oriented negotiator reacts to changes in the other person’s behaviour; her counterpart at the low end of the continuum does not.

The second variable is the negotiator’s motivational orientation – are you one of nature’s competitors or co-operators? Laying these variables across each other we can get a four-box matrix.

The four styles are: competitor, avoider, accommodator and collaborator. Their characteristics are as follows:

  • Competitor style Achieving results through power, rather than relationships, matter to competitors. They are aggressive, domineering and seek to win at all costs. Openly manipulative, they use ploys and tricks, including threats, and they talk much more than they listen. They make demands – they are takers – and seldom make offers.
  • Avoider style They prefer to avoid conflict, as implied in negotiating, and are happy to hide behind procedures, rule books and precedents. They avoid decisions, except those that maintain the status quo, and are suspicious of change, and are generally pessimistic (the bottle is half empty). They have few social skills and are not good at using them.
  • Accommodator style They are relationship-oriented, and hence try to placate persons by making early (and unnecessary) concessions if conflict threatens. They involve people in the negotiation process, they seek friendly agreement and they work at ingratiating themselves with friendly responders, often by smoothing over difficulties with verbiage.
  • Collaborator They are results-oriented through pragmatic problem solving and establishing good relationships. They are good team players and seek not to dominate the other negotiators but to involve everybody in solving the problem. For them, prolonged discourse to make the right decision is not a problem. They are ‘fixers’ and even manipulative at a high enough level of intrigue, though a trifle Machiavellian. They are networkers who play the informal influence game.

Of these, which style makes for the best negotiators? A rather pointless question, in my opinion, because all personality types have to negotiate at some time or other. Some, surely, will shine in some negotiation circumstances and fail miserably in others?

It is not possible, in my view, to predict the comparative success rates of the four personality types because personality is neither the sole nor the dominant determinant of the outcome. However, certain behaviours, as distinct from specific personalities, work less well in certain circumstances than others. I offer the alternative hypothesis that it is possible that all personality types can change their behaviour for a negotiation without necessarily having to change their personalities. Indeed, if this was not true, what would be the point of training people in appropriate negotiation behaviour? If behaviour can override personality, why bother with personality?

Gilkey and Greenhaugh, on the contrary, consider personality to be a dominant influence in determining the outcome. To illustrate their hypothesis that personality really matters in negotiation, they summarize how traits might manifest themselves in, for example, negotiations for a divorce settlement:

If the husband tends to be highly competitive, he is likely to define the situation as one in which he must win as much as possible in the settlement. If the wife tends to be highly accommodating, she might submit to his exploitative demands and not preserve her own interests … [if] both parties are compromisers … they would be likely to seek outcomes that split the difference between his interests and her interests. The result might be a solution that is not optimal for either party. Suppose, for example, that the couple had a breeding pair of championship Siamese cats, but, since the value of the cats is in their being a breeding pair, both husband and wife would lose some value in this settlement. If instead of being compromisers, the couple both tended to be collaborators, they would search for solutions to the problem that would benefit them both. Perhaps one party would keep the breeding pair and the other could keep all of the kittens in the next litter. Even worse … is the situation in which parties are conflict avoiders. Here the couple may let the marriage drag on after it should be ended.

Their summary does not exhaust all the possibilities of the interplay between partners. For example, perhaps the problem in the marriage is sourced in the incompatibilities of living with someone who has the same personality traits? If, then, either similar or different traits produce incompatibilities, how does this approach help us to acquire insight?

Imagine two competitive people divorcing each other. They would both be out to win in a classic stand-off. But what of the others? Would an accommodator negotiating with an avoider exacerbate his tendency to make early concessions to placate the avoider’s nervousness about negotiating, perhaps even making extra-generous concessions just to keep the avoider interested in making a decision?

How would a collaborator fare with an avoider? If the avoider can distinguish between competitive and collaborator pressure on her enough to become involved in a decision, which is contrary to her personality, there is a likelihood that the collaborator, mindful of the need for him to establish his relationship with the avoider (who does not want one), could get over involved himself and slide into concession making to create a motive for the avoider’s involvement in the decision!

If almost anything is possible when personalities interact, what is unique about the influence of personality on the outcome?

9780566073021[1]Adapted from Kennedy on Negotiation by Gavin Kennedy, 1997, Gower Publishing, Farnham.

Visit www.gpmfirst.com and read  Kennedy on Negotiation.