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Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations

Kellogg negotiations expert publishes four books simultaneously

Professor Leigh Thompson’s research disseminated in texts designed to reach both students and executives

By Kari Richardson

11/20/2007 -

Count September as a month of extraordinary accomplishment for Kellogg School Professor Leigh Thompson.

Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations, ushered in autumn with the almost simultaneous publication of four books. In less than two weeks, Conflict in Organizational Groups (Northwestern University Press), The Truth About Negotiations (FT Pearson Publications), Making the Team, Third Edition (Prentice Hall) and Organizational Behavior Today (Prentice Hall) all appeared.

“I tell my husband that it feels like I’ve given birth to quadruplets,” Thompson quips.

Though published at the same time, each of the four “siblings” is distinctly different. Conflict in Organization Groups, written with Kristin Behfar, is the most academic of the works, likely to be cited in research or read by doctoral students. And though Making the Team and Organizational Behavior Today are both textbooks, the former is written for more advanced courses, the latter for more basic courses.

Organizational Behavior Today, Thompson says, takes a somewhat unorthodox approach. The text consists of short chapters written in a practical style. Through online personality tests and interactive activities, a companion Web site aims to provide students with a better understanding of how they and others behave.

Thompson says she hopes the no-nonsense style and interactive components will help distinguish the work from other organizational behavior texts.

The publication that is perhaps closest to Thompson’s heart, however, is The Truth About Negotiations. Her first trade book, the publication was inspired by her frequent interactions with businesspeople while performing consulting work or presenting short courses.

“Whenever I give a businessperson a copy of my textbook, I always wonder if they will really sit down and read it,” Thompson says. “You certainly can’t sit down on a plane ride, for example, and digest a 350-page text.”

Her new book, Thompson says, is designed for precisely that. She envisions a time-crunched executive grabbing a copy at O’Hare International Airport before a coast-to-coast flight to prepare herself for an impending meeting. Written in punchy, two-page chapters, each section can be read and digested in a matter of minutes, not hours.

Each reveals one of 53 truths about negotiations. For example: “Truth 6: Don’t be a tough or a nice negotiator.” (It’s a false choice, Thompson says. Successful negotiators must cooperate with the other party to understand the opposing interests, while at the same time remaining competitive enough to claim value for themselves.) Or “Truth 27: Reveal your interests.” (This is desirable, contrary to what most people think. Negotiators who provide information to the other party about their interests improve their outcomes by 10 percent, she says.)

Adds Thompson, “In The Truth About Negotiations I tried to address what businesspeople really want to know. For that matter, they’re the same things that a lot of our full-time MBA students want to know. They feel uncomfortable in certain situations and they’re looking for some help. They really believe they are negotiating from a position of weakness. They ask, ‘What leverage could I possibly have?’ That’s a very common question.”

Chief among her students’ concerns, Thompson says, is whether or not so-called “win-win” negotiations actually exist. They do, she says, offering an age-old example as proof: Two sisters quarreling over an orange ultimately decide to split it down the middle. One squeezes her half to make juice; the other grates the peel of the other half to make scones. Only when the garbage collector carts away the remains do the sisters realize both could have easily obtained even more of what they wanted.

“Technically, most negotiations have win-win positions,” Thompson says. “There’s more than one thing people care about. Even when you’re talking price, there’s always an issue of payment terms, quantity, quality, delivery and indemnity. The likelihood that both parties have the same order of concerns is statistically very small.”

Though many of her students fear their customers have many more choices than they do in a negotiation, their worries are often unfounded, Thompson says. Her best advice: don’t panic and start dropping the price: “A person has a lot of power. Analyze your BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) from as neutral a position as possible.”

Take, for example, a homeowner who is trying to unload some property in the current slumping housing market. Though she may feel trapped, the homeowner could rent out the property or make improvements to increase the home’s salability.

Another fallacy Thompson dispels: Some people are naturally better at negotiations than others. “I have never met a natural-born negotiator,” says the Kellogg professor. “Most people believe that the way a person acts reflects their underlying behavioral traits. I think it really reflects the situation that they are in.”