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The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding


Laws of Power 19: Trust Self-Interest

By Karen S. Walch, Ph.D.

It is often said by classic power strategists that fear is stronger than trust. A primary goal of a classic strategist is to use fear to elicit compliant behavior from others in a negotiation. The logical and rational approach in a survival situation is defending one’s self-interests at all costs through strategies of fear. As I leave Madrid after attending a conference on trust, it has given me an opportunity to think about this topic in new ways. This week’s law will focus on how much of today’s research and practices in international relations and business relations highlight how strongly we depend on trust.

In contrast to strategic efforts to instill fear, contemporary negotiators focus on how to increase the quality of trust in negotiation relations. Trust facilitates cooperative and interdependent behavior because it helps with high-quality information exchange and problem-solving effectiveness. Trust is the willingness of a negotiator to be vulnerable to the actions of another, assuming that the other negotiator will not exploit those vulnerabilities when faced with the opportunity to do so.

Increasingly, there is interest in how trust and trustworthiness differ across cultures.

Those who study trust also make a differentiation between trust and trustworthiness, defining trustworthiness as the “characteristics and actions of the trustee that will lead that person to be more or less trusted.” Therefore, trustworthiness is a determinant of trust.

When we want to advance our self-interests in a negotiation, we trust that the other negotiator has integrity, is benevolent and has the ability to help us get what we need. We perceive that the other will want to “do right by us” and to have more than an egoistic self-interest in pursuing their goals.

One of the most interesting distinctions in trust research is that trust is not universally understood in the same way.  Let’s take for example some of the differences between Western and Eastern notions of trust.

Western negotiatoars tend to trust others who convey some predictability about their future behavior. In addition, Western negotiators tend to trust another who appears open and willing to share ideas and information freely and accurately. Asian negotiators, on the other hand, tend to trust another if social relationships and contraditions in circumstances are prepared for and understood.

At the core, if negotiators do not prepare for the differences between the concepts of trust in the context of collective versus individual self-interest, trustworthiness will be difficult to generate.

Eastern perceptions about trustworthiness are oriented to the context as a whole, including social relationships, situational circumstances, and compromises between contradictory positions. Analytic thinking, by contrast, involves the detachment of the object from its context, control of individual behavior, and rejection of contradiction.

Negotiators will have significant gaps about their interpretations of the factors of trustworthiness as well as in the importance they attribute to the different factors.

When you negotiate to advance your own self-interests and want to trust the other negotiator, consider how Western thinking is described as being analytic and often involves the advancement of one’s self-interest based on one’s ability and separate from the social relationship.

In contrast, trustworthiness in Eastern perceptions is in orientation to the negotiation behaviour on the basis of relationships. When thinking with an analytic, Western point of view, the individual is independent from demands of the (social) environment. Being able to act autonomously, analytic thinking locates the responsibility for one’s behavior in the individual disposition.

Therefore, reputation for honesty and truthfulness is in the part of the trusted individual and hints to the close relationship between integrity and honesty, which is described as “refusal to pretend that facts are other than what they are.” This interpretation of integrity is based on a search for, and belief in, absolute truth.

Accordingly, members of dialectic-oriented cultures are less surprised if somebody appears not to be 100 percent truthful, readily being able to find explanations for complex and potentially relevant factors. Assuming that social situations can include different and possibly contradictory aspects, truthfulness may therefore not be bound to considerations about what is “right or wrong” but to the engagement by the individual to reveal and understand the different aspects of a given social context.

Law 19 Reflections

1.  Is trustworthiness an absence of lying or lack of making an effort to understand?

2.  Is trustworthiness based on competencies and analytic ability or preparation and willingness to learn?

3.  Is trustworthiness based on predictability or ability to balance contradictions?

Extra Credit

For further reading on another exploration of trust in the 21st century, see  eTrust: Forming Relationships in the Online World, edited by Karen S. Cook, Chris Snuders, Vincent Buskens, and Cove Cheshire (Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2009).

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.

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