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The spirit of Kellogg: research and teaching

Professor Jeanne Brett

Prof. Jeanne Brett  
Professor Jeanne Brett  
Jeanne Brett, the DeWitt W. Buchanan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations, and Director of the Dispute Resolution Research Center (DRRC), initiated Kellogg's course in negotiations in 1981. She instituted the school's cross-cultural negotiations course in 1997. An industrial/organizational psychologist, Professor Brett recently spoke with Kellogg World about her research and the DRRC.

Talk about the Dispute Resolution Research Center and how it fits into Kellogg's academic context. What does it add and enhance here at the school, and what are some primary functions of the center?

Professor Jeanne Brett: The center was conceived to support research on dispute resolution very broadly defined, so we fund research in competitive decision making and negotiations, as well as conflict. We study these problems between organizations, within organizations, in teams and in dyads. We were supporting work on negotiating in teams, but most of that work now comes under the KTAG [Kellogg Team and Group Research Center] umbrella, the other center.

The contribution of the center over the years has been in studying cognitive biases that negotiators have, or what my Kellogg colleague Lee Thompson calls "major sins of negotiation" like leaving money on the table, winner's curse, agreement bias -- all these things that really keep negotiators from doing as well as they could.

Were these "sins" readily identified before you started studying them, or did you and your colleagues put them on the map?

The affect of cognitive biases on negotiators was identified by [former Kellogg Professors] Max Bazerman and Margaret Neale and their students, Leigh Thompson being one of them. That research was absolutely groundbreaking. It appears in the Management and Organizations curriculum in the core course as well as in the decision making and negotiations courses. Behavioral finance is now paying close attention to these biases that affect judgment and decision making.

What other research is associated with the Dispute Resolution Research Center?

Researchers affiliated with the center really do study disputes and disputing. A dispute is a rejected claim. In the late 1980s, Bill Ury and Steve Goldberg and I were studying wildcat strikes in the coal industry and we came up with the interests, rights, and power framework for resolving disputes. The original work was done in labor management. The cases we studied were extremely volatile: wildcat strikes, drive-by shootings, bomb threats. We extracted the dispute resolution theory from studying those highly distressed relationships. But the concept of systems design is now applied very broadly, not just in labor-management relationships. Government has used the research in a lot of situations where they take a systems design approach to figure out how to deal with an array of related conflicts, the S&L bailouts, for instance, were handled this way. The theoretical framework is now widely used to teach conflict management and dispute resolution negotiations, as well as to design systems for resolving disputes, and to intervene in highly distressed conflict situations. There is a whole field of consultants who call themselves systems designers. These people develop systems for containing and directing conflict to resolution following the principles we initially developed.

What about electronic negotiations. E-mail can certainly come across as stark even under the most innocuous circumstances, let alone when laden with any sort of emotional content. Have center researchers worked much with e-mail negotiations?

Professor Thompson has been studying emotions in negotiations, specifically how emotional contagion leads negotiators to depart from rationality. As part of that work she has studied how negotiating via e-mail differs from other types of negotiations. Relationships make a difference, she finds, and one big surprise that she has been following up has to do with how males and females differ when negotiating via e-mail.

What have you been doing since the wildcat strike studies?

My recent research is investigating negotiations in a global cross-cultural context. I'm interested in how people in different cultures deviate from what we as Westerners assume is standard negotiation strategy.

Can you provide a snapshot of what goes on in that realm of global negotiations and what insights you have gained from your research in this area? I know you have recently published your text titled Negotiating Globally: How to Negotiate Deals, Resolve Disputes, and Make Decisions Across Cultural Boundaries.

The framework for moving negotiation theory cross-culturally has three elements to it: one is that when you're in the same national culture, the economic, political, social and ideological institutions are constant. When you cross national boundaries, the people you're dealing with are coming out of a different cultural context; their laws are different, their priorities are different and so are their values. All this becomes reflected in the positions they take on issues in negotiation.

The language and nuances are made more problematic.

Exactly, but more than language and the fundamental assumptions about what is important may be different. The context you come out of impacts the positions you take in negotiations. If you're coming out of China where many elements of a market are fixed, and another person is coming out of America where many elements of the market are variable, you have a problem to bridge that difference and an opportunity to do so. The question of fixed versus variable pricing will surface. Issues of currency and political stability come up. Questions about where the big margins are. You're going off to find new and more lucrative markets, but those markets are often in politically unstable countries, so you've got a risk element to contend with. Enron in India is a good example of this. They keep having all kinds of problems getting paid for the electric power they've been generating.

It's helpful to understand that when you're negotiating your position is dependant on the context out of which you come. Operating with that awareness, you can be much more respectful, and perhaps more creative, when making proposals.

Is that the crux of overcoming the challenges of cross-cultural negotiations -- understanding the other person's point of view?

In any negotiations, the key element is to get behind the positions to the interests and understand the why. In cross-cultural negotiations, the "why" is often tied to the institutional environment from which you come. The other challenge of cross-cultural negotiations is that people from different cultures use different negotiating strategies. We have found that the goals people approach the table with are different in different parts of the world. There are areas of the world where collective goals are much more important than individual goals. Then in other parts of the world -- primarily the Western countries -- individual goals are preeminent and collective goals are considered to secondary. You get very different results when you're focusing on individual goals versus collective goals in negotiations.

We have found that social structure in some cultures is relatively flat, egalitarian and permeable, while in other cultures the structure is hierarchical, and quite fixed. These differences have strong implications for how people view power. In a hierarchical cultures, power is a function of status, but with status comes responsibility. The high-power parties see their social responsibility as taking care of the low-power parties. Whereas in an egalitarian society, parties have to look out for themselves and cannot expect others to take responsibility for their welfare. There's some interesting implications of this difference. Which society you prefer may depend on whether you are currently powerful or currently weak.

I wonder how many people are aware of this, and especially the subtleties of cross-cultural negotiations.

People know that cultures differ, but are less certain about the implications for negotiation. We've been able to demonstrate the implications more clearly, I think, than anybody else. And beyond that, the way people communicate varies. Western cultures tend to be direct communicators, meaning, you ask me a question and I give you an answer. In Eastern cultures, the communication is much more indirect and nuanced. So instead of giving you an answer, maybe I tell you a story about what my meaning was. That difference has strong implications for negotiation. We're trying to teach people to "expand the pie" when negotiating, not to leave money on the table, and to use all the resources possible. To do that, I have to know about your preferences and you have to know about mine and how they differ. If you come from a culture that speaks indirectly and I come from a culture that speaks directly, I may reveal more to you than you do to me. This asymmetric information may allow you to claim value.

Let's hope that at the top levels of government and politics we have people who are aware of these things. The implications given a breakdown in cross-cultural negotiations could, of course, be devastating.

That's right. On the political front there's a lot of negotiation communication being done in writing. In business communication we tend to want to have deal to happen fast and we want them done face-to-face. Westerners like the Q&A format. I assume you're telling me the truth until it's proven you're not. Easterners communicate in different ways. They'll put proposals on the table, or they will want a proposal from you. They tend to assume you are untrustworthy until you prove yourself. There may be a very different interpersonal environment.

That's fascinating. What keeps you interested in your research and teaching?

What keeps it fresh is that there are always more questions to ask. I was very interested in dispute resolution negotiations, but I was also teaching deal making negotiations. Around 1990, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kellogg faculty, including myself, started getting lots of invitations to teach around the world in cultural environments such as Russia, India, Europe, Thailand, Japan, China. I became very concerned that what we knew about negotiation strategy and negotiators' behavior was culture bound. I was worried about teaching what we knew about negotiations that was based on studies done in the United States. This concern motivated me to start a cross cultural deal making negotiation project.

That must have been something of a revelation, to see how much more vast the realm of your inquiry could be, and how much more profound the ramifications of that inquiry could be.

That's right. And what we learned in the early 1990s was how to do research on negotiations in a cross-cultural environment. It took us a while to figure out how to do it and get good data, but what we learned was that culture matters. Culture matters in that there is more than one way to get to the same deal -- which we knew in an intuitive way from our U.S. culture studies, but not nearly so clearly as we learned in our first set of studies comparing U.S. and Japanese managers.

Let's step back a little and get your opinion about how teaching at Kellogg has helped enabled you to advance your research agenda. What is it about the culture of innovation here that helps foster the research and motivate faculty to work together and apart on projects?

The short answer is that there is a synergy between research and the classroom. We learn from observing and systematically collecting data on students negotiating. What we learn we give back to the students in strategic knowledge that helps them improve their negotiation outcomes. When you can take your research into the classroom you are giving the students the best learning experience they can possibly hope for: cutting edge knowledge. What distinguishes Kellogg from other business schools that teach negotiation, is that the knowledge was invented here. Very few of our competitors can say that. I first started teaching negotiations at Kellogg in 1981. I took the course that was being taught at the Harvard Law School and wrote the lawyers out of the exercises. I was one exercise ahead of my 17 students that first year. I knew I had a subject that I loved to teach and that was very challenging. I had no idea that the students liked it that much. I was completely surprised when I walked into the classroom the second time we offered the course and had students hanging from the rafters.. This was before we had all the computers, so I didn't have a class list to let me gauge enrollment! I had a now-infamous negotiation with Dean Jacobs about how to serve all the students who wanted the course. He agreed to let me train some advanced PhD students and coach them through teaching the course. Today, of course we have a group of PhD students and post docs, who are interested in negotiation research, and whom we train to teach the course.

Some courses come and go or change their focus over time based in part on market demands, but it sounds like this aspect of the Kellogg curriculum has really proven itself consistently valuable over the long haul.

Yes. It's been around for a while. Negotiations is a fundamental skill that everybody needs.

In personal life as well as professionally.

Absolutely. To have a framework and strategy that's more formal provides an awful lot of leverage in all kinds of interpersonal interactions. The course turned out to respond to a very strong need that was just initially unidentified. When we started teaching this material in 1981, only two other business schools in the country were teaching it the way we were; now everybody teaches it the way we do. And Kellogg faculty have actually taught most of those other professors how to teach the material.

©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University