MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Gender stereotypes in negotiation—does Sheryl Sandberg have it right?

How do you negotiate when you need to make a positive impression? The answer may depend on your gender.

lean in book cover

In Sheryl Sandberg’s much discussed Lean In, the author describes research findings that women perceived as hard-charging types are liked less. She advises women to smile profusely during a negotiation, use the word “we” instead of “I,” and express appreciation to your bosses. Of course, Sandberg is aware of the contradictions implicit in these instructions, given the tenet of the book itself and adds, “No wonder women don’t negotiate.”

Her point is not lost on negotiation theorists who understand that for both genders there exists a tension between claiming value for oneself and being likeable in a conversation or negotiation. Women are assumed to be warm and relational, which might represent a barrier to advocating for themselves, whereas men are assumed to be competitive and thus less empathic in a conflict.

In "Making a Positive Impression in Negotiation: Gender Difference in Response to Impression Motivation" (Negotiation and Conflict Management Research), MIT Sloan Professor Jared Curhan and Jennifer R. Overbeck, of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, examined the ways in which impression motivation—the attempt to regulate other people's impressions of oneself—affects a negotiator’s ability to claim value and to actually make a positive impression on his or her counterparts.

The authors present a study in which they assigned 190 MBA students to same-sex groups to represent either a high-status recruiter or a low-status job candidate engaged in a standard employment negotiation simulation. Half of the participants were offered an additional cash incentive to make a positive impression on their negotiation counterparts.

As predicted, when incentivized to make a positive impression on their counterparts, men and women in the high-status role acted in ways that contradicted gender stereotypes. Women negotiated more aggressively and men negotiated in a more appeasing manner. Being motivated to make a positive impression may have cued negotiators to counter whatever negative tendencies they believe others see in them and to thus display a contrasting demeanor. The success of these strategies was mixed. In the end, the men’s strategy succeeded in producing a positive impression in the counterpart’s eyes but the women’s strategy failed to do so, leaving them judged more negatively than others.

“Sandberg got it right,” says Curhan. “The women in our study who ‘leaned in’ succeeded in claiming more value for themselves but failed at making a positive impression on their counterparts. The tension between empathy and assertiveness is one faced by both women and men, but each may benefit from different strategies to help manage that tension in a negotiation.”

Jared R. Curhan teaches in the MIT Sloan Executive Education course, Negotiation for Executives.