• Prof. Chantal Epie & Uche Attoh

Negotiation – The Role of Cultural Sensitivity

Business Ethics

Negotiation – The Role of Cultural Sensitivity

Managing groups effectively requires the capacity to obtain people’s willing collaboration and this requires cultural sensitivity. The process of obtaining another person’s agreement is essentially one of negotiation.

The focus of this article is on effective negotiation skills in group management, especially when there is need to obtain people’s consent on a subject matter. A case is made for the need to be sensitive to culture when seeking another person’s agreement. Two illustrations will be used to explain the role of culture in negotiations; Out-group and In-group. Out-group refers to person(s) outside one’s group of interest while the people within one’s group or organisation are classified as in-group. Negotiation tactics may be very different in the case of conflicts, but will still derive from the cultural mindset of the negotiator.

Scenario 1

The managing director called from the airport. He wanted a document sent to its departure lounge. Mrs B called Monday, her official driver, and left for the airport. As she arrived, she told Monday that, as she did not intend to take long, there would be no need for him to use the airport car park. “Just drive ‘round’ a couple of times; by that time I will be back and ready to go.” Monday drove ‘round’ once and, unwilling to go on, stopped the car where he hoped Madam would soon appear. He kept the engine on and waited for the imminent appearance of Mrs B. However, within a few seconds, an official airport towing vehicle had chained the car for illegal parking. Monday had not noticed what was happening as no warning had been given. On leaving the departure lounge, Mrs B saw the situation and realised she would have to engage in a difficult negotiation. She knew that the airport security was not interested in reporting infractions but would insist on the immediate payment of a heavy ‘fine’ for which there would be no receipt. Ignoring a wailing Monday, she politely greeted the officer-in-charge (OC) and asked him, not only to impound the car, but to arrest the driver as it was time Monday should be dismissed. At these words, Monday prostrated himself on the floor, wailing. Mrs B walked away with her personal belongings, making a loud phone call to the Human Resource Manager to report “useless Monday” and asking him to send her another car. At this, the OC and his staff all ran after Mrs B, imploring her to forgive Monday and telling her she could recover her car and go. She eventually consented. Once out of the reach of the airport security staff, Monday exclaimed “well done, Madam.”

In this illustration, Mrs B employed an approach that made a former adversary (the security officer) develop a positive relationship with the main ‘culprit’ (the driver). Instead of joining the driver to plead with the security officer, she politely told them to confiscate the car and arrest Monday.  There are three reasons why this approach, which looked like an appeal to culture, was quite effective. First, Mrs B was quick to identify an imminent extortion from the security officer who could have blown the argument to his favour. Thus, Mrs B created a distraction by supporting the officer in condemning Monday and even went further to make a call to Human Resources. Second, Africans are inclined to embrace private settlement at the expense of formal institutions for conflict resolution either as a result of corruption or other institutional weaknesses. Lastly, negotiation is often perceived by Africans as a possible option for not accepting ‘no’

When involved in negotiation with a hostile out-group, it is necessary to engage a method that would be generally acceptable to the community.

Four important elements were itemised for an effective negotiation with a hostile out-group: tactics (creating a positive distraction from the perceived offense), strategy (shifting one’s problem on the major ‘culprit’), culture (eliciting empathy from the other party) and body language (joining the out-group to express anger at the situation and main ‘culprit’). Generally, this approach is acceptable because it causes no harm to the society nether does it constitute a crime in any form.

Scenario 2

Mr A was concerned by the lack of initiative of his senior managers and the high staff turnover among his key employees. He thought of ways to get his team more involved and committed. He could not afford to raise salaries substantially at that time. Knowing the importance of status symbols in Nigeria, he obtained good second-hand SUV vehicles and ensured that their offices in the new headquarters would be quite large and equipped with quality furniture. He appointed a management team and transferred some of the powers he had hitherto reserved for himself, after having a conversation with each one to clarify expectations. He gave his newly promoted general manager (GM) authority to make spending decisions on his own up to a certain amount beyond which the GM was asked to consult him (not to ask permission) before making his own decision. In management meetings, he had just one vote just like the other team members, so that decisions were reached with everyone’s participation. Staff turnover soon dropped and the senior managers became zealous and responsible in running the affairs of the company. In this situation, a long-term relationship was involved and Mr A adopted a win-win approach. There was dialogue. There was an exchange of benefits. He gave due consideration to the interests of the staff while promoting his own interest as a business owner. He gave them good cars, spacious offices, and authority, all of which are indicators of high status.

In the second illustration which involves negotiation with in-group, there was need for the business owner to engage subordinates in dialogue when pursuing organisational benefits. Rather than making an attempt to manipulate staff to accomplish business objectives, it is better to give them true value by offering them incentives to elicit commitment from them. Furthermore, authorities should be delegated as this creates a sense of ownership as well as positive emotion in employees.

In conclusion, cultural factors such as attitude, pattern of communication, orderliness, sensitivity to time as well as team organisation have a huge impact on negotiation.

What do you think of Mr A’s way of negotiating higher commitment from his staff? Would it be equally successful in every culture?



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