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Why Trump’s Pride in His Negotiating Ability May Be Backfiring

Cambridge, Mass., September 18, 2017  During his decades in business, and particularly in his book The Art of the Deal, President Donald Trump nurtured a reputation as a savvy negotiator. On the campaign trail, Trump’s pride in his negotiating skills took center stage as he disparaged then-President Barack Obama’s deals on climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, and NAFTA. As president, Trump insisted he could—and would—reach much more advantageous deals for the United States and its citizens. 

Yet Trump has struggled to gain his footing as negotiator-in-chief. He has failed to help congressional Republicans meet shared goals, such as repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. His phone calls with leaders of America’s allies have often been tense and unproductive. And as Trump searches for deals with his newfound friends Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, he’s been accused of betraying both his party and core campaign promises. 

The difficulty of transitioning from business to government is likely one explanation for the rocky start. But new research from the MIT Sloan School of Management published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that Trump’s well-documented pride in his negotiating skills could also be holding him back. 

In two experiments, MIT Sloan School of Management Prof. Jared R. Curhan, working with Virginia Tech professor William J. Becker, looked at the habits of people who negotiate back to back with many different partners. Purchasing managers, sales reps, HR professionals, and lawyers—not to mention presidents—often must flip from on deal to the next, a circumstance that could pose unique challenges. But because past negotiation research has tended to examine one-time deals or repeated interactions between the same parties, very little was known about how people perform in such “sequential negotiations”—until now.

In one of the experiments, Curhan and Becker studied the actual negotiations of employees of a U.S. transportation company as they bargained for lower rates from various fuel suppliers. They found that when negotiators got a good outcome in one negotiation, they felt positive emotions, which triggered in them a sense of pride. They then carried this pride into their next negotiation with a new partner—where it became a liability. By contrast, when people did less well in a negotiation, and didn’t experience pride, they often rebounded and reached better outcomes in their next deal, the researchers found. 

Curhan and Becker confirmed these results in a controlled laboratory experiment where undergraduate business students played the role of a buyer or seller in a negotiation simulation four times in a row, facing a different counterpart each time. Here again, the better participants felt after a negotiation, the worse their outcomes were in a subsequent negotiation, and versa. In this experiment, pride explained this effect for men, but not women. 
In sum, when negotiators feel proud of how they performed in one negotiation, their pride can backfire in their next negotiation with a different counterpart. 

Why might pride hold us back in sequential negotiations? Pride may make us overly confident that our performance in one deal will carry over to the next. In negotiation, overconfidence can lead us to cut corners and make careless mistakes.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent emotions triggered by one negotiation from carrying over and sabotaging our next deal. 

“Give yourself a cooling off period and do some reflecting,” says Curhan. While cooling off, negotiators should strive for a humble, learning mindset to tamp down any overconfidence. That advice might serve Trump, with his penchant toward hubris, particularly well. 

At an organizational level, firms should give their employees flexibility to space out their negotiations so that any pride they experience has time to dissipate.