Flirting With Negotiation -- Redefining 'Feminine Charm'

There has been a flurry of media headlines lately stating that women who flirt make better deals. These stories build on a recently re-released study done at U.C. Berkeley to quantify and measure what the researchers call "feminine charm," which they say is a mixture of friendliness and flirting. Based on four experiments, using primarily Berkeley students hired to play-act negotiation situations, the Berkeley team concluded that sometimes, under certain conditions, when women are negotiating with men, they might do better if they flirt. Then again, they might not.

Without questioning the study's methodology and assumptions -- or even carefully reading its conclusions, many media headlines blared with such gems as: "New Study Says Flirting Is Key for Women to Get Ahead in Career," and "Women Who Flirt Get Better Deals."

The stories touted flirting as the new, secret ingredient that should work for all women. The headlines titillate, sex sells, and so, apparently, does devaluing women.

Negotiation research has clearly documented that negotiators do better when they build rapport with their negotiating partner. In fact, the Harvard newsletter, Negotiation, reported recently, "by creating a personal bond with your counterpart, you set yourself up for success -- as long as you consider the context and possible ethical pitfalls."

Some might argue that flirting is one way for some women to build rapport with some men. But when we consider the potential ethical pitfalls involved, flirting should not even be on the table in workplace negotiations.

Most workplace negotiations are complex situations, in which maintaining a relationship of trust and respect matters. This is less the case in a simple, one-issue negotiation, such as selling an item for a fee, where money is the only issue on the table and the parties will not (presumably) see each other ever again. However, the Berkeley study looked primarily at simple negotiations, such as the sale of a car. In the one experiment where students role played a slightly more complex, integrative negotiation, women did not do better for themselves when they flirted. That's because a relationship in which one party needs to flatter and cajole another to assert her own concerns is not a connection built on trust or respect.

As someone with extensive involvement in managing international conflict, I will tell you that good negotiators try to create value at the bargaining table by engaging their negotiating partner in a collaborative, problem-solving process. They favor a "win-win" process in which each party explores his or her own interests, and those of the other, and works collaboratively to meet as many of both parties' overall interests as possible. Negotiation research tells us that good negotiators know how to balance empathy (a concern for others) with assertion (a concern for oneself).

The Berkeley team argues that feminine charm serves this purpose by combining friendliness (a concern for others) and flirtation (a concern for oneself). The team further notes that assertive women are not likeable, so, they conclude, the best way for women to be both assertive and likeable is to use their feminine charm -- i.e., to flirt.

Interestingly, the Berkeley study opens with an anecdote about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conceding that she may well have used her feminine charm in bilateral negotiations with foreign heads of state. I have worked with Albright; she is an excellent negotiator and is, indeed, charming. Her smile is engaging and infectious. But she is not, in anyone's book, a flirt.

In the 21st century, competent, talented women should not ignore their value and flatter their negotiating partner with sexual innuendoes to be considered likeable and/or get the job done. Not only does such behavior demean women, putting them in a subservient position, but it doesn't gain the woman any value at the bargaining table.

The good news is that women are, and can become, great negotiators. Women are excellent at building rapport when they do it in a way that feels right -- suiting their own style and temperament. Women can be empathetic, assertive, and likeable, by honestly bringing their talents, skills, and competence to the table. Many successful, powerful women add that it doesn't hurt to smile while being assertive. Perhaps this is what feminine charm is really all about.