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Muma College of Business Professor Researches "Face-Threat Sensitivity" Dynamics in Negotiations

By Keith Morelli

Tony Kong

TAMPA (September 30, 2020) -- New research by a Muma College of Business professor disputes long-held beliefs about the subtleties imbedded in the fine art of negotiation. Besides offers and counter offers, there is “face.” Or more specifically, “face-threat sensitivity.”

Researchers are looking at how this individual trait affects negotiation processes and outcomes. A recent study by a group of researchers, including Dejun “Tony” Kong, of the USF Muma College of Business, has refuted a conclusion of previous research into the topic. Kong, the faculty director of the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership and an associate professor in management at the School of Information Systems and Management, published the co-authored research in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, a Financial Times 50 journal. The paper is titled "Face Threat Sensitivity in Distributive Negotiations: Effects on Negotiator Self Esteem and Demands."

Kong took time from his schedule to answer a few questions about the project.

Q: In terms that everyone can understand, tell us what your research is about, what it proves.

A: What image would we like to present to others? That image is what sociologist Erving Goffman called “face,” which is the positive image an individual wants to establish and maintain in social interactions. In business settings or workplaces, people want to be seen as competent and be respected by others. This is our “face.” However, negotiations, common in business transactions and workplace interactions, tend to be perceived as competitive, and thus, a person’s face is often threatened.

Uncivil, rude and aggressive behaviors, which can be common in workplaces, further increase the likelihood of face threats occurring in workplace negotiations. Some people are sensitive to these threats, whereas others are less so.

The individual difference in reactivity to face threats is called “face-threat sensitivity” and can influence people’s psychological and behavioral reactions to face-threatening behaviors. Previous research suggests that those with high face-threat sensitivity become more competitive in response to their partner’s face-threatening behaviors. However, by designing a “cleaner” experimental design for distributive (zero-sum) negotiations in both face-to-face and online settings, we found that those with high face-threat sensitivity actually became less competitive or demanding in response to their counterpart’s face-threatening (competitive) behaviors. 

Q: How will your findings benefit negotiators and/or counterparts, be they competitive or cooperative?

A: Our research findings suggest that negotiators who have high face-threat sensitivity, due to their strong reactivity to face threats, can be vulnerable to the other party’s manipulation and should learn to protect themselves. My previous research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2016), suggests that negotiators may use fake anger as a manipulative tactic. That tactic has the potential to threaten their counterparts with high face-threat sensitivity and make those negotiators concede. Well, not everyone can be thick-skinned, so those with high face-threat sensitivity need to be cognizant of their conceding tendency in response to their counterpart’s face-threatening (competitive, irritating, disparaging, condescending, etc.) behaviors.

Q: What is your advice to those with high face-threat sensitivity about those who would exploit it?

A: Simply this: Negotiation is not about fierce competition. Rather, it is about problem solving. Manipulating a counterpart who has high face-threat sensitivity for concessions does not necessarily render the maximum personal benefits. After all, win-win requires cooperation (rather than competition), which can be achieved, for example, through “food sharing,” according to another paper I recently published in Psychological Science (2020) with faculty members from Stony Brook University and Columbia University in New York.

Q: With a nod to COVID-19, does it make a difference if the negotiations are face-to-face or on a computer screen?

A: In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people discuss business matters and run meetings via e-mail, phone and other virtual methods. However, in virtual (versus face-to-face) interactions, people tend to misinterpret others’ messages in a negative manner; thus, an innocent message may be “read” as face threatening. For those who have high face-threat sensitivity, such misinterpretation can cause them to miss opportunities for helping themselves achieve their personal goals or claim value in negotiations.

While being ultra-competitive or ultra-demanding is not helpful for negotiators to reach a win-win agreement, healthy competition or reasonable demands can push both negotiation parties to achieve an optimal solution that is mutually beneficial. 

Q: Did your research involve actual negotiators or subjects playing the parts?

A: The participants in our face-to-face and online experiments were students from two universities (including USF’s Muma College of Business) and people participating through online panels. 

Q: In negotiations, how specifically does a negotiator “threaten” a counterpart’s self-esteem?

A: Self-esteem is a complex psychological concept that shapes how we see the world and behave in it. Negotiations are not only for individual achievements (maximizing personal benefits) but also for social relations (relating to others). We define ourselves not only in terms of our personal achievements, but also in terms of how we relate to others and how they perceive us.

We found that in response to the other party’s face-threatening behaviors, negotiators’ performance self-esteem, that is, how they see themselves in terms of performance/competence, is bruised, which explains why they become less demanding. Their social self-esteem, that is, how they see themselves in terms of their social image/relations, does not explain the effect of the other’s face-threatening behaviors on high face-threat-sensitivity negotiators’ reduction in demands.

In our final experiment, we helped some participants elevate their performance self-esteem using a positive-feedback manipulation and found that among these participants, those high in face-threat sensitivity did not reduce their demands in response to their counterpart’s competitive (versus cooperative) behaviors. This tells us this: We need to believe in our own competence/performance in negotiations, which likely can keep us from the other party’s exploitation or manipulation and help us be effective in negotiations.  

The paper’s co-authors are Ece Tuncel, with the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology, Webster University, Missouri; Judi McLean Parks, with the John M. Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis; and Gerben A. van Kleef, with the Department of Social Psychology, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.