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Unethical Tactics in Negotiation

What are unethical tactics in negotiations?

Unethical tactics are those meant to deceive or harm others with no overwhelming individual or societal good that outweighs the harm of deceit. More often than purely unethical, a tactic may be ethically ambiguous. That is, the tactic may or may not be improper, depending on an individual’s ethical reasoning and circumstances. An action may be illegal, but the individual does not hold it to be unethical. Conversely, an action may be legal but considered unethical.The selection and use of a given tactic is likely to be influenced by the negotiator’s own motivations and his or her perception/judgment of the tactic’s appropriateness.

  • The Power Motive – The objective is to acquire or demonstrate individual power. In the exchange of facts, arguments, and logic, it is assumed that the information is accurate and truthful. Any inaccurate and untruthful statements (i.e., lies) introduced into this social exchange manipulate information in favor of the introducer. Power motives often lead to ethical tactics such as bluffing, falsification, misrepresentation, deception, and selective disclosure, the liar gains advantage (discussed below).
  • Competition Motive – When motivated to be competitive, and when expecting the other to be competitive, the negotiator would see the marginally ethical tactics as appropriate. When both parties are competitively motivated, they exhibit the greatest tendency to employ marginally ethical tactics.

Generally, a negotiator’s own motivational orientation, whether cooperative or competitive, does not cause differences in their view of the appropriateness of using a tactics; rather, it is the individual’s perception of the other party’s motivation that affects their assessment. In other words, negotiators are significantly more likely to see the marginally ethical tactics as appropriate if they anticipated that the other would be competitive versus cooperative. There is no consensus as to whether using ethically ambiguous tactics is appropriate.Examples of common negotiation tactics that are potentially unethical in a given situation include:

  • Competitive bargaining – Competitive bargaining is generally assumed and ethical. Using tactics, however, that are meant to deceive or coerce the other party may be seen as unethical in a given situation. This is very subjective, but the negative effects of a tactic being perceived as unethical is the same.
  • Emotional manipulation – Using tactics that intentionally affect the emotional state of the other party in an attempt to sway her otherwise-logical decision making may be seen as unethical.

There are, however, tacitly agreed-on rules of the game in negotiation. In these rules, some minor forms of untruths—misrepresentation of one’s true position to the other party, bluffs, and emotional manipulations—may be seen as ethically acceptable and within the rules. Outright deception and falsification are generally seen as outside the rules. Several categories of tactics that are generally seen as potentially inappropriate and unethical in negotiation, including:

  • Misrepresentation – Deception by omission versus commission. “Passive misrepresentation” (also known as misrepresentation by omission) is a strategy in which a negotiator does not convey his or her true preferences and allows the other party to arrive at an erroneous conclusion. “Active misrepresentation” (also known as misrepresentation by commission) is a strategy in which a negotiator deliberately misleads his or her opponent.
  • Backing out of a negotiated agreement – While breaching a legally binding contract is illegal, there is a separate analysis as to whether it is unethical. Likewise, backing out of a legally unenforceable contract may also be unethical.
  • Revoking an an offer – Making or revoking an offer in bad faith (generally as tactical move) is generally viewed as unethical by the affected party.
  • Inappropriate information collection – This regards tactics used to collect information from the other side that is either disingenuous or used to create a negative reaction in the other party. Examples of this type of tactic would include “bluffing”, which is the misrepresentation of a fact or position to achieve a desired reaction in the other party. Another tactic is “nickel-and-diming” which is a colloquialism that refers to the strategy of repeatedly asking for more favors or resources after a negotiation has presumably ended.

When a negotiator employs unethical tactics, there is generally an underlying explanation or justification to rationalize the behavior. Common justifications might assert that the tactic was unavoidable or harmless, it was fair to the situation; it will help to avoid negative consequences, that it will produce good consequences or the tactic is altruistically motivated, “They had it coming,” or “They deserve it,” or “I’m just getting my due,” “They were going to do it anyway, so I will do it first”, “He started it.”

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