By Emily Ayshford
Imagine you’re a real estate agent, selling a house with a leaky roof. Do you reveal that fact to potential buyers? The answer may differ depending on your gender.
Men are more likely than women to lie and say the roof is in great shape — an instinct that tends to be the same whether men are selling a client’s house or their own.
But for women, there is more nuance to the answer, according to new research by Maryam Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. A woman who is negotiating on behalf of someone else will lie at roughly the same rate as her male counterpart. But, if she is negotiating on her own behalf, she is much less likely to deceive.
“Women feel they are under pressure. They think, ‘I’m going to let that person down unless I deceive,’” Kouchaki says. That feeling of guilt may cause them to stray from their core values and deceive on behalf of a client.
The Role of Guilt in Negotiations
Previous research on competitive negotiations reveals interesting gender differences. Men, for example, report lower personal ethical standards while negotiating than women do. And women feel compelled to negotiate less assertively based on society’s expectations of women.
But one situation seems to even the playing field: when women negotiate on behalf of others.
“Women in advocacy roles are getting as much done as men,” Kouchaki says.
Kouchaki and coauthor Laura Kray of the University of California, Berkeley wondered why this was the case. Specifically, they wondered about the role of guilt. Could the guilt attached to not doing everything possible to help a client, no matter how unethical it might be, lead women to act against their own moral compass?
After all, research has shown that women are significantly more guilt-prone than men. But guiltiness is not always bad — it can reinforce moral behavior.
“A lot of research shows that guilt can be a positive force. Guilt-prone people are likely to be more ethical,” Kouchaki says. But, there’s a possible twist. If women feel guilty about doing the ethical thing, then “guilt can lead to bad behavior.”
How Appropriate Are Deceptive Negotiating Tactics?
To test their idea, the researchers recruited 174 participants to complete an online questionnaire in which they rated the appropriateness of deceptive negotiating tactics such as making false promises or bribing people to get information about opponents. Half the participants rated the statements as though they were negotiating for themselves, and half as though they were representing a friend.
Women rated the deceptive tactics as more appropriate to use when negotiating on behalf of someone else than for themselves, while men rated the tactics equally, regardless of their role.
In another, similar study, women reported feeling a higher expectation to lie when negotiating on behalf of a friend than for themselves, while men reported the same level of expectation to lie in both scenarios.
The researchers wondered whether these beliefs would translate to actual actions during a negotiation situation. To find out, they recruited male and female participants for an in-person role-playing negotiation.
Approximately half of all participants were assigned the role of a buyer who wanted to purchase a piece of land to build a high-rise hotel; the rest were instructed to act as that buyer’s agent. Then participants interacted with a seller — actually an actor following a script — who demanded that the property be used only for residential purposes. Would participants lie about their plans for the property in order to get the deal done?
Overall, 66 percent of male participants lied to the seller, compared to just 54 percent of female participants. For men, the rate of lying did not change much whether they were acting as buyers or agents. But for women, the story was quite different. When acting as a buyer’s agent, women lied at roughly the same rate as did men. But when representing themselves, only 44 percent of women lied.
An Expectation to Lie
So women lie as much as men do when they are acting on behalf of others — at least in part because they feel like they are expected to do so. But where does this expectation come from?
In another study, nearly 400 participants read a scenario involving selling a used car — either their own or a friend’s — that had a known defect. Participants in each group were divided in half, with one half rating their level of agreement with statements about how they would feel if they did reveal the defect, and the other half rating statements about how they would feel if they did not reveal the defect. All participants also rated their agreement with moral statements such as, “Omitting some information is just a way of getting a fair deal.”
The researchers found that, when representing others, women anticipated feeling more guilt when they told the truth about the car’s defect — suggesting their guilt stemmed from letting down the seller. Yet women representing themselves experienced the opposite, anticipating feeling more guilt for deceiving the buyer than for telling the truth.
Interestingly, the researchers found that women disagreed with immoral statements equally, whether they were representing themselves or others.
Whom You’re Negotiating for Matters
The final study looked at whether women’s advocacy behavior would change if they were negotiating on behalf of a man versus a woman. Participants played a role-playing game where they competed either on behalf of themselves or on behalf of a partner they had just met. The game was set up so that participants could earn small amounts of money, which created an incentive to lie.
When women represented a male partner, they lied 68 percent of the time, compared to lying 42 percent of the time on behalf of a female partner. (Men’s deceptive behavior did not change based on the gender of their partner.)
Kouchaki theorized that women feel more obligated to lie for their male clients since they tend to think a male client is more likely to expect deception than is a female client, and thus the guilt of not doing so drives them to be deceptive.
“Even if women have high moral standards, there are traps where guilt can lead to bad behavior,” Kouchaki says.
Overriding the Feeling of Pressure to Lie During Negotiations
While eliminating gender differences sounds, on the surface, like a good thing, it becomes problematic if women are feeling coerced into behavior that goes against their own beliefs or moral compass.
Given that, managers should be clear about expectations to ensure that they are not signaling to employees that it is OK to be deceptive in order to get results.
“Even good people with high standards can have their behavior changed by a manager,” she says. “They could feel pressure to deceive.”
And those who have found themselves caught up in a negotiation where they deceived, despite having a strong moral core, should reflect on that as a way to improve next time.
“I believe in a learning orientation for morality,” Kouchaki says. “There are not good people or bad people. You learn and get feedback. You continually grow over time.”
Emily Ayshford is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist at Concrete Communication in Chicago.