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The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Value of Empowering Your Counterparts to Collaborate

By Chuck Doran and Stephen Frenkel

Businessdictionary.com defines the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy as “[E]xpectations about circumstances, events, or people that affect a person’s behavior [such that] he or she (unknowingly) creates situations [that fulfill] those expectations.” In other words, your predictions about a situation (and therefore how you act in that situation) will cause those predictions to come true.

But what does this have to do with you as a negotiator? More than you think. In a typical negotiation with at least two partners per side, your beliefs about them – and what you anticipate from them – will influence your actions, which will in turn influence their reactions. When your counterparts on the other side of the table are in disagreement with each other, they look to you to confirm or disconfirm their various hypotheses. Therefore, your actions inevitably and directly prove one side correct and the other incorrect, thereby empowering one faction over another, influencing their behavior and completing the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies!

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As an example, let’s take the “simple” issue of trust. On the other side of the negotiating table, your counterparts are in disagreement about whether or not they should trust you. Meanwhile, independent of their discussion, your team is having the same debate. You have two choices – follow through with your commitments or don’t. Seems simple, right? But let’s discuss the implications of each.

  • You don’t follow through, probably because you didn’t trust them in the first place. Unfortunately though, your untrustworthy behavior will greatly increase the chance that they will respond in kind. Furthermore, I imagine the conversation on their side of the table would sound something like this: “We told you we couldn’t trust them! Now look what’s happened.” Who do you think has just gained an advantage on their team – those who trusted you or those who didn’t? Our guess would be the latter.
  • You follow through with your commitments. Hopefully, they respond in kind. Either way, who have you empowered on their side this time? Let’s look at the likely conversation again: “I told you we could trust them!” NOW those who trusted you are empowered and those who didn’t have been proven wrong.

In other words, it is the actions of one team that informs the conduct of the other. Close to 80% of negotiators take the “wait and see” approach to negotiating – they wait and see what you do before they decide their own approach or actions. By negotiating in good faith, leading the way (even when it may mean short term risk), you’ve set the stage for long term gain. With trustworthy actions, you’ve empowered the internal faction on the other side that also sought collaboration and trust.

Unfortunately, trustworthy behavior does not guarantee reciprocation the way untrustworthy behavior does – negative and untrustworthy behaviors have a strong harmful influence on relationships and negotiating dynamics. You should not trust blindly under all circumstances, incurring unnecessary risk. It’s important to realize and understand the consequences (or benefits) of your actions.

So, if you don’t know what they’ll do, and you can’t trust blindly, why be trustworthy? It is our contention that, over the long term, building a reputation for being a trustworthy negotiator will take you farther than the alternative. Letting your counterpart know, even in small steps, that you’ll follow through with your commitments will set the stage for them to do the same in return. The long term benefits of a trustworthy approach will highly outweigh the short term losses you may experience. And digging even deeper, if you follow through and they don’t, who’s indebted to whom? You’re in a better position if they have to make it up to you and regain your trust than you are if you’re the one apologizing.

Furthermore, if you’d like to exhibit trustworthy behavior, but you’re not certain that you can trust them (or that they can trust you), consider building structure into your conversations and agreements. Sometimes simply being transparent about the negative consequences to the deal and the relationship (as a by-product of negative behavior, rather than what will be directly imposed by you) can be enough. Other times, we’d recommend designing consequences and/or incentives into agreements to promote follow through.

Remember these points as you negotiate – when you think factions may exist in the other side (and they probably do), think about what you can do to empower those who are actually “partners in resolution,” and act accordingly. Your behavior may do more to set the stage for a successful outcome than you realize.

To learn more about preparing for upcoming negotiations or improving your negotiation skills, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org for more information.

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