The Slippery Slope

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Everyone enters into a negotiation with the intent to be honest. But- ay- that is the “rub”. One party’s (“Jane”) definition of “honesty” may be different than the other party’s (“Mary”).

Why? Research has shown that one’s honesty will vary with the environment. As a March 25, 2015 blog post on the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School website explains, “…personal standards for negotiation ethics often vary depending on the context.” (“Negotiation Ethics May Be a Slippery Slope.”). Thus, Jane will try to tell the truth unless and until she believes Mary is lying to her. Then, her own standards of “honesty” will change.

According to this blog post, researchers Simone Moran of Ben-Gurion University and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania found that “…simply envying someone can lead you to be deceitful.” (Id.)  To determine this, the researchers conducted the following experiment:

In one study, Moran and Schweitzer asked participants to imagine that they had competed with another person for a promotion and lost. The participants then negotiated either with the person who beat them or with another individual. Those who negotiated with someone whom they imagined had just beaten them were more willing to engage in deception in negotiation [footnote omitted] as measured on a scale developed by Rob Robinson of the University of Hawaii and Roy Lewicki of Ohio State University. The authors attribute this willingness to engage in deception to the envy experienced as a result of losing the competition for the promotion. (Id.)

From this and other experiments, the researchers concluded:

These studies suggest the pliability of negotiation ethics. Many of us may unknowingly adjust our ethical standards based on the negotiation context. In addition, it appears that we can anticipate a decrease in ethics in negotiation [footnote omitted] by others who have recently suffered a defeat. (Id.)

So- the question becomes: how to avoid the slippery slope? Another blog post from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School (“Ethics and Negotiation- Standards and Norms for Negotiations“- April 8, 2015) provides some guidance. It suggests that as Jane and Mary negotiate and feel that they may be going down that slippery slope into deceit and deception, they ask themselves some questions.

The first question is about reciprocity: Jane should ask herself: Would I want to be treated this way by Mary or the way I am about to treat Mary? If the answer if “no”, then the slippery slope is fast approaching.

The second is about publicity. How would Jane feel if the actions she is about to take are broadcasted on the local news that evening, or on Face book, Twitter, other social media or otherwise made known to the public? If she feels uncomfortable about that, look out slippery slope!

The third involves telling someone about it. Would Jane feel comfortable telling anyone about what she is about to do… or would she want to hide it? Again, if the answer is that she would prefer to keep it to herself, watch out slippery slope!

The fourth concerns looking at the situation as an outsider. If someone came to Jane and asked her what she should do in this situation, would she advise that person to do what she is about to do? If her advice is “no”, then she is about to go down the slippery slope.

The fifth (which I consider the most important) is all about respect and reputation. Does Jane want to be known and remembered for what she is about to do? Will it garner her respect or disrepute? If the latter- beware of the slippery slope.

While these five questions seem simple on paper, in reality and in the heat of the moment, they may well be difficult to implement and think about. We all know that in the heat of a difficult situation, we may not always be as objective and rational (to the contrary- we will be thinking “emotionally”) as we should be. But, the down side is the slippery slope which once one proceeds down it, may have lasting effects.

As my colleagues have noted, if you are caught up in the situation, take a break, “go out on the balcony”, take a walk, cool off and once calm, ask yourself the above questions. Your answers will tell you if you are about to slide down the slippery slope.

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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