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Shades of Gray

I am so relieved our Negotiations course is over. What a painful learning experience. I’ve never been in a situation that so clearly exposed differences in ethical standards. At the least, the class laid bare the differences in people’s standards about lying. Early in the course, the faculty acknowledged that ethical differences would emerge and encouraged us to learn from them rather than simply apply judgment. So
what did I learn?

Up front, I’m one of those idealists who abhor a lie in any form. My friends know not to ask me anything unless they want an honest answer.

Even bluffing makes my stomach turn. I know I’m in the minority, but I’d never given much thought to the consequences before.

First semester didn’t prepare me for the differences. In Foundations, we debated great ethical dilemmas like child labor, product safety, and profit vs. social good, and we walked away with a set of common lessons. We traipsed through first semester, basking in the glow of shared community standards, and largely came through with a united ethical front. I suspect some minority dissent might have been stifled by the consensus-driven culture, but I felt like I was in the mainstream, ethically speaking. Did we miss some interesting, polarized discussions in our rush to build commonalities?

Then Negotiations began in January, and we scattered across a spectrum. I’d never seen anything like it. Unlike “real life,” where you might never know you were deceived, we talked openly about tactics and underlying assumptions. On the one end stood people who proudly declared victory via misinformation; on the other end stood people (like myself) who believed anything and concealed nothing. Most people filled in the middle with the belief that some deception is not only permissible but expected.

I originally believed that open discussion would eliminate deception, but I was wrong. I also thought that negotiating with friends and the low stakes would reduce incentives to lie. Yet friends admitted to misleading each other, and several people felt the lower stakes decreased the penalty of lying. Deceivers didn’t do it because they thought no one would know, or because their counterpart was a stranger, or because the stakes were high. They did it because they truly believed it was okay.

Was I na‹ve to be surprised?

We were taught that there’s a constant tension between value creation, which requires honesty, and value claiming, which seems to benefit from deception. In line with this, my negotiations created value, but my stance seemed to be a liability in the claiming stage. I often left negotiations with bruised feelings and less of the pie than my counterpart.

I don’t like to lose and I seemed to be on the fringe with my beliefs, so I took advantage of our safe haven to try a new approach. Based on one of our notes, I declined to share information, diverted the discussion, and used scale data to communicate preferences. I felt slimy but honest, and I improved my outcome. I thought I had proven I could be an honest, successful negotiator. Then in class I realized that deception still paid more. Luckily, my counterpart hadn’t lied. I wonder how I would have fared if he had?

Finally, I crossed the line. In one of my negotiations I lied. I was doing well as a result, too. But I felt so terrible that I confessed before we closed and gave significant concessions as penance. In life outside HBS, with real stakes, the guilt would have been worse. I couldn’t do that again.

There was one bright spot in my experience. I watched individuals who used especially deceptive tactics suffer for it. Coalitions formed against them, less valuable deals were taken to lock them out, and they were targets of sarcastic comments in class. I was pleased to see that extreme deception isn’t a viable long-term strategy.

In the end, I’ve been forced to face a difficult truth. I now recognize how common deception can be and that many people believe it’s simply part of the business game. I’ve also seen with hard facts that honesty can be a handicap, especially if your counterpart has different standards. And because I seem to hold a minority opinion, I’m often likely to find myself disadvantaged. On the upside, I’ll suffer fewer backlashes from broken trust. I guess this means I’ll get the short end of the stick, but people will keep coming back for more.

I wish we’d spent more time talking about ethics in class. I’d like to understand how to better recognize differences and minimize the disadvantages. Although these topics were raised, we didn’t give them as much time as I would have liked. This goes beyond Negotiations, though.

We didn’t talk about ethics in Marketing or Accounting, either, even though some cases screamed “moral hazard.” To be fair, I’m not sure the courses are built to accommodate such discussions. Perhaps this is where an RC course on Ethics could fill what I view as a gap in the curriculum. Where’s the honesty in a public commitment to ethics without adequate weight in the curriculum?

March 3, 2003
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