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Jeanne Brett, the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr., Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations, developed <i>Cross-Cultural Negotiation</i> to help students learn how to negotiate across cultural boundaries.

DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr. Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations Jeanne Brett

Bridging the cultural divide

<i>Cross-Cultural Negotiation</i> course takes the art and science of debate to the global level

By Amy Trang and Tim De Chant

10/12/2009 - Chaos seemed to erupt out of nowhere in the Jacobs Center classroom.

Latin American men were kissing the women on the cheek, the Japanese students were bowing to everyone, and the Americans were shaking hands and slapping everyone on the back. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be an icebreaker gone awry. But to Jeanne Brett, the professor, it was a perfect bit of pedagogy.

Brett had given her class a simple task: greet each other as friends in your own culturally correct manner. In that simple exercise, she had revealed the complexities of communicating across different cultures.

“Why are you all greeting each other differently?” Brett prodded. “Which way is the right way?”

Those greeting behaviors were appropriate to their own cultures, the students answered.

“Negotiations are similar,” Brett said. “People in different cultures have different ways of negotiating that work for them but are not the same across cultures.”

Negotiations — an already delicate dance between two parties seeking to maximize their outcomes — grows more complex when the players come from different cultures, says Brett, the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations.  In the course Cross-Cultural Negotiation, students learn how culture affects the negotiators’ ethics and strategies.

Brett’s inspiration for the course came from an unlikely source — the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, a monumental event that helped precipitate negotiations for German reunification. Shortly thereafter, Brett was invited to teach courses on negotiations around the world. But she would soon realize her existing course was based on research done in the United States, with a sparing amount from northern Europe. Her experiences teaching overseas at the time led her to think “there may be some very significant differences in the way people negotiate across cultural boundaries.”

So Brett and her graduate students immersed themselves in the psychology of culture and created an elaborate research program to study its role in negotiations. Cross-Cultural Negotiation was a natural product of this research, and the course continues to incorporate new research as it is introduced.

“It is a loop,” Brett said of the ties between the course and her research. For example, students of her class are given the opportunity to take a survey that details how trusting they are going into negotiations. The students learn which strategy may best suit their level of trust, and Brett uses the data to further refine her research.

Each class period also offers an opportunity for hands-on learning. Students experience different roles in a variety of negotiation exercises that involve licensing products, negotiating contracts for infrastructure in developing countries, devising solutions to global warming, and resolving disputes between angry claimants.

One such experience dove into the seemingly light-hearted world of children’s entertainment. Students were split into a variety of roles: Four became mayors of small towns in the French countryside, another a French government official, and a sixth an executive from an international entertainment company hoping to locate another of its theme parks outside Paris.

“We don’t want your jobs. It’s demeaning, to dress up like a Mickey Mouse!” an offended French mayor told the representative. The corporate man was stunned by the response, given that youth unemployment in the area was 26 percent. They seemed to be at an impasse, yet the two groups soldiered on, hoping to come to an amicable conclusion despite the cultural hurdles.

After each negotiation exercise, the class spends time debriefing. Following the Mouse exercise, the students discussed why the French mayors were not concerned about the high level of youth unemployment in their towns — the young people were living at home, were frequently unemployed because they worked intermittently in the agricultural sector, and had unemployment benefits and national health care. Furthermore, the mayors and their constituencies did not want foreign investment to change that picture, something a “Mousey” amusement park foreshadowed, said Long Wang, a Management and Organizations lecturer who teaches the class.

The negotiations assignments grow in complexity over the course of the quarter, from one-on-one exchanges to multi-party discussions that must take multiple interests into account, Wang said.

“I want them to have a way of thinking about how culture affects negotiations and how they can be effective negotiators regardless of what culture they are negotiating in,” Brett said. “I want them to be confident and knowledgeable wherever in the world they find themselves negotiating.”

“The key is to help students learn how to put themselves in the shoes of others and be able to understand each other’s motivations, regardless of culture,” Wang said.

Mini-exercises and short cases — many developed from prior students’ final term projects — provide a level of depth that would be missing from a lecture-only course. The course’s hands-on approach has helped Andres de Lucca ’09 gain confidence in facing real-world situations.

“You need to perform those cases in order to learn negotiating,” de Lucca said. “The randomness of the groups makes it interesting and more real. Some groups come up with their own creative solutions and unique problems for their outcomes.”

The course also offers an educational perspective on the student experience at Kellogg, de Lucca added, where one out of every three students hails from abroad.

“It’s not always easy to understand where your classmates come from,” he said. “This course puts a formal structure on what you experience during these two years.”

Editor’s note: In June, Brett received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association for Conflict Management for her outstanding contributions to the science and practice of conflict management. The second edition of her book, Negotiating Globally (Jossey Bass, 2007), captures much of Professor Brett’s research on cross-cultural negotiation and summarizes much of the material taught in the class. The first edition of the book was awarded the IACM Outstanding Book award in 2002.

Brett also teaches an open-enrollment course in the Kellogg School’s Executive Education program, Negotiation Strategies for Managers, which draws on material from the book and the Cross-Cultural Negotiation class.