Distributive Bargaining

Brad Spangler

June 2003

What is Distributive Bargaining?

Distributive bargaining, also called "claiming value," "zero-sum," or "win-lose" bargaining, is a competitive negotiation strategy that is used to decide how to distribute a fixed resource, such as money. The parties assume that there is not enough to go around, and they cannot "expand the pie," so the more one side gets, the less the other side gets.

Why Is Distributive Bargaining Important?

Distributive bargaining is important because there are some disputes that cannot be solved in any other way -- they are inherently zero-sum. If the stakes are high, such conflicts can be very resistant to resolution. For example, if budgets in a government agency must be cut 30 percent, and people's jobs are at stake, a decision about what to cut is likely to be very difficult. If the cuts are small enough that the impact on employees will be minor, however, such distributive decisions can be made more easily.

Even in cooperative negotiations, distributive bargaining will come into play. Distributive bargaining and integrative bargaining are not mutually exclusive negotiation strategies. Integrative bargaining is a good way to make the pie (joint value) as large as it can possibly be, but ultimately the parties must distribute the value that was created. If they are able to expand the pie enough, distribution is easy. If there is still not enough to give each side what it wants, however, distributive negotiation will be more difficult.[1]

The Pros and Cons of Distributive Bargaining

Some conflict resolution theorists believe that distributive bargaining is unnecessary. Any conflict, they argue, may be solved cooperatively through integrative bargaining. For example, in their book Getting to Yes, Fisher, Ury, and Patton argue that with creativity, disputants can almost always work together to "expand the pie" and create outcomes that benefit both sides.[2] Even when budgets have to be cut, they would argue, the parties make the decisions together so that all sides get the best possible outcome. Distributive bargaining has also been criticized because it tends to lead to destructive actions and sometimes forces the involved parties to focus too much on their differences. If people want to maintain a good relationship with one another, it is argued, they should take an integrative approach to distribution as well as expansion of the pie.

However, in cases where the "negotiator wants to maximize the value obtained in a single deal and when the relationship with the other party is not important," distributive bargaining tactics may be very useful.[3]

Process and Strategy in Distributive Negotiations

The process of distributive negotiation involves the interplay of one's walk away value -- the minimum or maximum one can accept before "walking away" from the deal -- and the adversary's walk away value. The trick is to get an idea of your opponent's walk away value and then try to negotiate an outcome that is closer to your own goals than theirs. Whether or not parties achieve their goals in distributive bargaining depends on the strategies and tactics they use.

Information is the key to gaining a strategic advantage in a distributive negotiation. You should do your best to guard your information carefully and also try to get information out of your opponent. To a large extent, your bargaining power depends on how clear you are about your goals, alternatives, and walk away values and how much you know about your opponents'. Once you know these values, you will be in a much stronger position to figure out when to concede and when to hold firm in order to best influence the response of the other side.

[1] The idea that integrative or interest-based bargaining will always include distributive bargaining too was originally put forth by David Lax and James Sebenius in The Manager as Negotiator: Bargaining for Cooperation and Competitive Gain, 1986. <http://books.google.com/books?id=FN_OIG0-alEC>.

[2] Roger Fisher and William Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, 3rd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011). <http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=23737>.

[3] Ibid, p. 71.

Use the following to cite this article:
Spangler, Brad. "Distributive Bargaining." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/distributive-bargaining>.