Lying in negotiations

halifax consulting Published by Halifax Consulting – 7 September 2023

Lying in negotiations is a huge subject! I’m a teacher-researcher at a leading business school. I’ve been studying negotiation from a psycho-social perspective for 10 years now. My research has focused, for example, on the interpersonal role of emotions in negotiation. This involves asking whether the expression of certain emotions during negotiation, such as anger, sadness or joy, generates more or less concessions on the part of the negotiator who witnesses it. Hence the term “interpersonal”, which refers to the effect of the emotion of one negotiator on the behavior of the other.

I immediately think of Winston Churchill, who was known for his choleric temperament, which Charles de Gaulle saw as an asset in winning his case. Moreover, it is quite possible, still in negotiation, to express certain emotions strategically, i.e. without necessarily feeling them. In my opinion, this is already a form of lying, since we are saying that we are experiencing emotions that we are not really feeling. 

Lies in negotiation are the subject of studies in Social Psychology because there are so many questions to be answered! First of all, what is a lie? Then, why are we led to lie? Are there certain personalities that are more ‘liars’ than others, or certain social contexts that are more conducive to lies? And finally, how do we react to lies?  

What is a lie?

This is a much more complex issue than it might at first appear. In negotiation, as in social life, there are two categories of lie: lies of omission and lies of commission.

Lying by omission consists in not voluntarily sharing certain decisive information concerning the subject of the negotiation. Ignorance of this information can be prejudicial to the negotiator who is the victim of the lie. This could be the case, for example, of a product that has failed to mention that it is defective.

Lying by commission is different from lying by omission in that it consists in modifying a reality or inventing a new one. A negotiator may mention that he has already been made a better offer when in fact he has no alternative other than what he could obtain in the current negotiation. The “lying” negotiator may also state that he cannot make a better offer because his hands are tied by the mandate he has received. These two examples of lying are regularly mentioned in the literature, as if they were somehow “traditional”.

It is important to note that some lies are seen as less ethically problematic than others. Lies of omission are generally better tolerated than lies of commission.

Why do we lie?

Several reasons are given in the literature to justify lying. Firstly, people lie because they suspect the other person is lying too. From this perspective, we distort reality to avoid being exploited. This reminds me of an article by Glick and Croson (2001) who list several types of reputation in negotiation. These include the “liar and manipulator” reputation and the “cream puff” reputation. According to these authors, these reputations are special because they commit the other party to lying and manipulating in turn! The reputation of the negotiator you are dealing with, whether he or she is known to lie or, on the contrary, is too nice, is therefore also a reason to lie.

But other explanations are also put forward in the literature. People may lie because they think they will never see the other person again in the future, and so the lie has no consequences. They may lie to increase their personal gain, or because they underestimate the probability of being “caught”. They lie for reasons of life and death. They lie because they are at a disadvantage. We lie to protect our reputation. Finally, you lie because you don’t like the person you’re dealing with. As you can see, there are many reasons to lie in negotiations.

Is lying taboo in negotiation?

To answer this question, I think it would be useful to start by clarifying what is meant by “taboo”. A taboo subject is one that should not be discussed for reasons of social or moral propriety. In social life, children are taught not to lie, because lying is “bad”. When it comes to negotiation, the perspective is slightly different. Negotiation is often perceived, wrongly, as being purely competitive. The aim is to win more than the other party, the other party becomes “an enemy to be destroyed”, and there will inevitably be a winner and a loser at the end of the negotiation. This is known as the competition bias. In this competitive logic, it is not inconceivable to use manipulative tactics to defeat the opposing party – it’s not “taboo”. In fact, in his book “The heart and mind of the negotiator”, Leigh Thompson makes a surprising observation: The vast majority of negotiators admit to lying regularly, about the importance they attach to certain aspects of the negotiation, about having alternatives, or by exaggerating their demands. It’s not so serious because “everyone does it”, it’s “the game”, and “it doesn’t have any consequences”. So you can lie, of course, as long as you keep it within the realms of those little lies.

Can you be a good negotiator without lying?

I would answer this question by quoting Fisher and Ury, the authors of the book “Getting to yes”, on which the interest-based negotiation method is based. According to them, there are two dimensions behind any negotiation: the dimension of the person, i.e. with whom you are negotiating, and the dimension of the problem, i.e. what you are negotiating. According to these authors, good negotiation does not mean giving priority only to the problem dimension, that of “performance”, to the detriment of the person dimension. Negotiating well means nurturing the relationship over the long term, creating and developing trust, looking for common ground, etc. Lying may certainly seem opportune in the short term, but it will have harmful consequences for the relationship, particularly if the lie is detected by the other negotiator.

What is the profile of a liar?

As I mentioned earlier, everyone has a tendency to lie to varying degrees. However, research has identified certain profiles or circumstances that are more conducive to lying.

First of all, there are the profiles known as “individualists” or “proselfs”. This term refers to negotiators who tend to prioritise their personal gain over the gain of the other party. Remember the typical competitive bias associated with negotiation. That’s what we’re talking about here too. In this conception, negotiation is experienced as a situation where there can only be one winner. It’s hardly surprising then that individualists lie more than a different profile of negotiators, the ‘prosocial’. The prosocial perceive negotiation as a problem to be solved by two people, in which both their own needs and the needs of the other must be satisfied.

Secondly, negotiators with a high sense of ‘self-efficacy’. Generally speaking, self-efficacy expresses the belief in one’s ability to perform a task correctly. In negotiation, having a high sense of self-efficacy means having confidence in one’s ability to negotiate well. Gaspar and Schweitzer (2019) observe that negotiators who score high on self-efficacy tend to significantly underestimate the probability that their lies will be detected, thereby motivating them to lie more.

Finally, negotiators who find themselves in an advantageous power relationship. Like the negotiators mentioned above who are confident in their skills, “powerful” negotiators have difficulty correctly assessing the possibility of being “caught”.

How do you deal with lies?

Perhaps start by detailing what not to do. Anger at having been deceived can lead the negotiator to confront the liar aggressively. Confronting the other person means telling them verbatim that there is no doubt that they are lying. This legitimate and natural reaction is, however, risky.  If the liar is found out, he may feel humiliated and lose face, thus interrupting the negotiation. Taking care of the “personal dimension” also means not humiliating the other party.

So what is the right stance to take? First of all, you need to create a climate in which lying is not an option. The better you know the other person, the more trust there is, and the less likely it is that you will lie. So you need to work on the relationship beforehand. You can also ask a lot of questions during the negotiation. Schweitzer and Croson (1999) show that the number of questions asked during a negotiation is inversely proportional to the number of lies told.

Secondly, I think we need to be humble about our ability to detect lies. Research is unanimous on this point: we are poor lie detectors! A lie is correctly detected one time out of two, which is by chance. What would be the consequences of wrongly confronting a negotiator who is acting in good faith?

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