When It Comes to Negotiating, Two Jerks Are Better Than One

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It’s fair to say we’ve all had our share of disagreeable moments — obnoxiously arguing at length about the latest political hot take with someone who keeps trying to change the subject, telling tasteless jokes, laughing during inappropriate times. It’s not exactly a pattern of behavior that will win you any friends, but it does come in handy in certain situations: According to an intriguing study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, negotiations work better when both sides have similar personality traits — even if they’re both, well, jerks.

As co-authors Kelly Schwind Wilson, D. Scott DeRue, Fadel K. Matta, Michael Howe, and Donald E. Conlon write in their paper, “research shows that across diverse attitudes and different kinds of similarity, individuals have rewarding interactions with individuals who are similar to themselves.” As it turns out, how we relate to one another in negotiations is a reflection of how we approach pretty much every other aspect of our lives.

For the study, the researchers recruited roughly 200 college students to fill out a questionnaire designed to determine their levels of each of the Big Five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Afterward, participants were randomly paired off for a mock negotiation between two companies about how to navigate a merger. Each pair was given 30 to 40 minutes to reach an agreement on several different human-resources-related issues, including vacation time and signing bonuses; at the end of the allotted time, the study subjects were asked about their perceptions of the negotiation and their partner.

The results: When both partners had similar scores on agreeableness or extraversion, they each tended to think of the negotiation as a better emotional experience. More closely aligned personalities also led to “shorter negotiations, less relationship conflict, and more positive evaluations of the other negotiator,” the authors wrote.

And that was the case even when both partners were toward the lower end of the agreeable spectrum. “If you’re a jerk and I’m a jerk, then it might seem like we’ll never get anywhere in negotiations, but it’s actually more useful to put two similarly minded people together,” explains study co-author Fadel Matta, an assistant management professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

Pairing up two opposite personalities, on the other hand, leaves too much room for each person to misinterpret the other’s motivations. An earlier paper published this year in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people interacting with angry counterparts become (unsurprisingly) more likely to walk away from a negotiation. The study, cleverly titled “Infuriating Impasses,” noted that “negotiators perceived their angry counterparts to be particularly selfish, which increases exiting behavior” — but this latest research suggests that putting two angry people together will cancel out that effect.

It also suggests that the old wisdom about catching more bees with honey isn’t necessarily accurate. According to Matta, a good negotiation is all about forging a good relationship — and that’s more likely to happen when both parties approach a negotiation the same way, regardless of how nice they are. Sometimes, the jerks really do finish first.

When It Comes to Negotiating, Two Jerks Are Better Than One