Rethinking the Culture-Negotiation Link in Negotiation Theory and Practice
By Robert Janosik
Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Robert Janosik, Rethinking the Culture-Negotiation Link in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffery Z. Rubin, (Cambridge: The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, 1991), pp. 235-246.
The relation between culture and negotiation styles has been the topic of much investigation and research in recent times. Janosik, however, argues that the term "culture" is understood differently by different authors. These different notions of culture yield different understandings of the culture-negotiation link. Having surveyed the literature Janosik finds four distinct approaches to understanding the impact of culture on negotiation.
The first approach views culture as learned behavior. It focuses on actions, without giving much attention to the reasons behind those actions. Researchers following this approach observe that certain types of behavior are common to certain cultures, and attempt to catalog those behaviors. Some of the earliest investigations into cultural differences take this form. The approach tends to yield cross-cultural negotiation etiquette guides, or how-to manuals. Such general yet definite advise is often helpful to practitioners. However, Janosik notes that this approach has difficulty accounting for individual variations in negotiation styles.
The second approach views culture as a matter of shared basic values. For this approach "the assumption, simply put, is that thinking precedes doing, and that one's thinking patterns derive from one's cultural context."[p. 237] Researchers try to discover the basic values and attitudes of a particular culture, and then to deduce patterns of negotiation behavior from those basic beliefs. Cultures are often classified as belonging to certain basic types: direct or indirect, adaptive or interventionist. Some versions of this approach describe cultures in terms of a consistent set of basic values. Other versions focus on the ideological context of thought and negotiating behavior. Whereas the learned behavior approach merely describes differing behaviors, this approach attempts to explain those behaviors. However, this approach also has difficulty in accounting for individual variations in negotiation styles.
A third approach understands cultures as shaped by the dialectic tension between paired, opposing values. American culture, for instance, can be seen as shaped by the tension between the values of collectivism and individualism, or pragmatism and idealism, or spirituality and materialism. This approach has the advantage of being dynamic where the previous approaches were static. It can explain changes in a culture over time as shifts in the balance between opposing values. And it can explain individual variations in negotiating style as different personal interpretations of the same basic tensions. While this approach is more interesting to the academic, it is less helpful to the negotiation practitioner, since it gives less definite answers to what to expect in a given circumstance.
The fourth approach draws on a systems theory and offers multi-causal explanations of negotiating behavior. Basic values are seen as only one cause among many. Human behavior is shaped by a complex set of factors including individual personality, cultural values, and the social context. Negotiating behavior will vary depending upon a wide range of factors, such as the participant's age, religion, class, or character, relations of authority, institutional setting, the opponent's behavior, and even the presence or absence of an audience. Academic analysts currently favor this approach. Its complexity gives more nuanced explanations. However this same complexity makes it even less useful as a predictive tool, and so as a useful guide for negotiation practitioners.
Janosik concludes by locating the above approaches to understanding negotiation behavior within an even greater split in the field of negotiation theory. Early negotiation theorists tended to take an economic approach to negotiation. The economic model sees negotiator behavior as shaped primarily by rational decision-making aimed at maximizing the actor's outcome. Social psychologists have since offered models of negotiation behavior which take unconscious psychological and situational factors into account, and which are correspondingly more complex and indeterminate. Attempts to measure the effects of culture on negotiating behavior fall within this broader social psychological approach. Approaches which rely on simplified notions of culture and rational choice theory are attractive in part because they offer determinate accounts of negotiation behavior and relatively simple predictive models. Janosik cautions however that this appeal should not prevent us from undertaking studies which rely on rather more sophisticated notions of culture. Such approaches are messier but are potentially more accurate and ultimately more rewarding.