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Sweet little lies: how men and women use deception in negotiations

Negotiations, by their nature, tempt individuals into an ethical slide. Even the most principled negotiator would consider it acceptable to withhold some information from an opponent, just as a self-protective…

From hire to liar: honesty is not always the best policy in workplace negotiations. Image from

Negotiations, by their nature, tempt individuals into an ethical slide. Even the most principled negotiator would consider it acceptable to withhold some information from an opponent, just as a self-protective strategy: revealing all opens the possibility that an opponent will take advantage of a negotiator’s honesty.

So, negotiators are encouraged to adopt a “morally pragmatic” stance, openly sharing information only if they believe their opponents are trustworthy.

This stance encourages negotiators to withhold or misrepresent information when the circumstances are right. But when, exactly, are the circumstances right?

Recently, negotiation researchers have started to explore the conditions under which negotiators are more (or less) predisposed to use deception.

Gender is among the variables in play. Two findings stand out: women rate the use of deception as less appropriate and less ethical than men and women elicit more deception from their negotiation counterparts. Should it follow then, that women will deceive their opponents less, and be exploited by their opponents?

What emerges from my recent research, conducted with colleague Carol Kulik (UniSA) and student Lin Chew (Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences) is a more nuanced picture.

In our research we asked whether the use of deception was affected not just by a negotiator’s gender, but also his or her opponent’s gender; whether negotiators were accommodating, placing priority on their relationship with their opponent, or competitive, placing priority on achieving the best possible individual outcome; and by how trustworthy an opponent was.

Our findings, to be published in the Journal of Business Ethics, show that all of these variables matter when women negotiate, but not when men negotiate.

What do I mean by this? Men, in negotiations with other men, appear to operate in a flat decision-landscape. They do what they do, either deceive or don’t deceive, irrespective of their opponent’s strategy or trustworthiness.

We might say that their dominant concern is a utilitarian one in which the ends justify the means. And that this consequentialist approach over-rides the nuances of the negotiating context.

But this pattern changes when a woman joins the negotiation. When women and men negotiate, we observe an interesting mix of pragmatism and opportunism.

Deception is relatively low and stable, except when opponents using an accommodating strategy are also seen as untrustworthy. What we see in these negotiating pairs is an ethical calculation, one that assesses whether the benefits of unethical action outweigh its costs.

The benefit of deceiving an untrustworthy opponent is clear, it serves to protect negotiators from exploitation. And the costs are likely to be assessed as low when an opponent accommodates, because this is seen as a soft strategy which almost invites exploitation.

Not only does the decision-making process become even more complex when two women negotiate but a new variable, the type of deception, comes into play. Women are most likely to withhold information (a sin of omission) from an opponent when that person is untrustworthy and behaves competitively. This is moral pragmatism in action. But the decision to misrepresent information (a sin of commission) is more complex and suggests an opportunistic streak in all-female negotiations.

Misrepresentation peaks under what we might consider the best of circumstances: when an opponent is perceived as highly trustworthy and uses an accommodating strategy. No threat, no likelihood of exploitation and yet lying increases. Maximum benefits, minimum costs. But deception goes down when opponents are competitive and able to sanction negotiators for acts of betrayal.

What can we learn from this? First, our findings fit with gender differences in decision-making more broadly: women use a greater range of fairness principles than men, and modify their choice of fairness principles to suit the situation.

Second, negotiators need to be aware that the signals they convey about their trustworthiness may prime the other party to deceive them. More importantly, they need to be aware that impressions of trustworthiness, in combination with their strategy choice, have different consequences depending on who they negotiate with.

Men, in negotiations with other men, operate in the most predictable social context and are at least risk of eliciting deception. Women, in negotiations with other women, operate a more complex and unstable social environment and are at most risk of eliciting deception.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    Really interesting findings, and obviously relevant to the oft-stated claims that Board rooms and senior management populated by men and women offer quite different dynamics. This kind of research is also relevant in other contexts, from international relations and diplomacy, to public health and health care. It is interesting that some differences do arise, however, in relation to men's propensity to 'do what they do...irrespective of their opponent’s strategy or trustworthiness': in deciding whether & how to act on information, men (moreso than women) are influenced by characteristics by which they judge the 'trustworthiness' of the 'messenger' who conveys information.

    1. account deleted

      logged in via email

      In reply to Margo Saunders

      It's a fascinating finding that bears out observations of my own around the "negotiation" of public policy on all sorts of genderised issues. A great deal of the discussion around such policy is essentially flawed, because the data being used is quite obviously not reliable. Why is it not reliable? Partly it's because women doing the research are deliberately choosing to distort the argument by presenting guesses as facts, or by ignoring data that does not fit the case they wish to make. This has…

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    2. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to account deleted

      "There is also the fact that women consistently report that they are less happy with female bosses than males"

      I just took a quick look through the literature available on-line on gender in management and I couldn't find evidence of that, Craig. Can you direct me to it?

    3. account deleted

      logged in via email

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Hi Sue, I'm not wedded to the idea, and can't be bothered looking. It was based on my recollection of reports in various press offerings. If I'm wrong, no worries.

  2. Gary Myers

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I assume the 'related articles' suggestions are based on an algorithm, rather than 'intelligent'. But two pictures of Julia Gillard ?

  3. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    This report misses crucial information on the context or type of negotiations studied.

    Consider my negotiations with a seller of widgets in which I agree to buy the widgets for $10 each. Should I disclose to the seller that I have a buyer at $15 each? Possibly I should in abstract ethics, but I can't see how capitalism could work if parties were required to be completely frank with each other. I'm all for dismantling capitalism, but perhaps this is not what the author contemplates.


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  4. Baron Pike

    logged in via Facebook

    Men understand that deception is an acceptable part of the negotiation game. And most deception is passive rather than active lying, because if one gets caught in outright lying, you've broken the rules that you've been trusted to follow. People that study these games don't seem to realize that we trust each other to play the same game by the same rules, not simply trust each other to be non-deceptive. Deception is necessary for any strategy of life to work - another thing that the writer of this article doesn't seem to get.
    And it's just as necessary for women to deceive as men. They just have a cultural necessity to do it differently.

  5. Dianna Arthur


    Mara Olekalns

    And men are from Mars and women from Venus? Right? Because we know men and women are so vastly different from each other it is a miracle they can even breed, right?

    May I ask where you found the evidence for your claims?

    Given that most men and women's abilities tend to over lap - picture a bell curve graph with a minority of extremes at either end; extremely feminine at one end and the extremely masculine at the other. Most of us are in the middle.

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    1. account deleted

      logged in via email

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Didn't read the article, eh?

  6. Comment removed by moderator.

  7. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    This seems to have a profound application to the upcoming applications for the nation's top job.
    But didn't Machiavelli go over all this some time ago?
    Perhaps voters and business "Principals" should re-read? "The Prince".
    Put it on the School curriculum?

  8. John Kelmar

    Small Business Consultant

    When growing up my parents, school, and social group always proclaimed that "Honesty was the best policy", and I followed this into my early teens. However, I found that others were gaining benefits that were denied me because they lied and altered the facts to suit themselves.

    We have seem many people secure high paying jobs through the creation of false credentials on their CVs (eg Foley) and all those who have taught at Australian Universities have seem student gain qualifications without…

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  9. Jodelyn W.

    logged in via email

    I am currently a student at Drury University and am enrolled in an ethical communication class. This week we are learning about feminist contributions to ethics and one of the contributors, Carol Gilligan, states that an ethic of care characterizes the female moral voice. “Compassion, empathy, and nurturance help resolve conflicting ethical responsibilities to all concerned including self” and that “Focus is primarily on the concrete circumstances of particular relational situations to guide moral…

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