Does food at the negotiating table affect the outcome?

The friendly, “let’s have a bite to eat and chat” negotiation days are, for the most part, sadly over. Unless you are negotiating in the Middle-East, South America or other relationship-based cultures, casual, relaxed negotiations are a thing of the past.

It’s down to business. Before our counterpart even sits down, we are asking for their bottom line.

Given the aggressive deadlines we are all under, the mammoth workloads we carry and the pressure both procurement and sales professionals are under, it is not a surprise.

Yet what the research always ends up showing us is, when it comes to negotiations, slower is often actually faster. Begin by laying the groundwork, creating a trusting rapport and yes, even sharing food. The time this involves can actually be worth ten times the outcomes we achieve.

How often is food present during our negotiations? Rarely, right? Yet, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Margaret Neale and doctoral student Peter Belmi discovered that the presence of food can actually affect a negotiation outcome.

The manner in which it affects our negotiation will depend on two things; the type of food and the perception of the bargaining situation. What Neale and Belmi found is that shared food (salsa and chips, for example) in a competitive environment turned the negotiation into value creation. Yet, individual portions (such as cookies) did not have the same result.

Also, surprisingly, when the negotiators anticipated a cooperative negotiation the shared food actually created less value for both sides.

The researchers theorize this is because the food created a more relaxed, family environment which made both sides less willing to be assertive. In the case of the competitive negotiation, this caused both sides to be more focused on value creation in order not to upset the relaxed atmosphere. In situations where everyone was already going to be cooperative, the deal takes a backseat to the comradery of the meeting.

So, when you are dealing with a potentially hostile negotiation, perhaps you should whip up your favorite salsa recipe and serve it with chips. If it is a friendly negotiation, just bring the cookies.

One more tidbit on food – at a restaurant, order what your counterpart is ordering. Another study found that eating the same food as your counterpart fosters trust. Let’s just hope they order something you like!

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