Power, Trustworthiness, and Willingness to Negotiate

by Cindy T. Christen, Ph.D.

Most investigations of the negotiation process assume that the parties to a conflict are willing to participate in formal negotiations. In reality, a number of factors can influence a party’s willingness to consider negotiation as an option for resolving a dispute. Even when objective interests overlap, negotiations can be difficult to bring about in light of subjective misperceptions that can exist between parties (Fisher, 1989). To encourage parties to come to the table, it is important to consider the perceptions of the parties to a conflict and the effects of those perceptions on each party’s willingness to negotiate.

One perception that can influence willingness to negotiate is the perceived balance of power in the relationship (Burkhardt et al., 1997; Christen, 2004, 2005). Social exchange and resource dependence theories (Emerson, 1962; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978) suggest that dependence with respect to a vital resource can lead a less powerful party to ignore a feeling of threat and pursue negotiations with a party it perceives as more powerful. However, bilateral deterrence theory (Lawler, 1986) argues that the less powerful party will reject negotiation rather than risk being exploited by the powerful party.

An experimental examination of recreation management indicated that the influence of perceived power on willingness to negotiate indeed depended on the balance of power in the relationship (Christen, 2004, 2005). In line with results obtained by Burkhardt et al. (1997), Christen found that willingness to negotiate tended to increase when an organization and external group were similar in power. When the organization was less powerful, perceptions of its own power were positively related to willingness to consider negotiation. When the external group was actually less powerful, the organization’s perception of its own power reduced its willingness to come to the table.

A second perception that can influence willingness to negotiate is the perceived trustworthiness of the other party (Hardin, 1996). At an organizational level, trust is primarily a matter of rational choice according to Kasperson et al. (1992), with an organization more likely to be willing to come to the table if the external group is expected to behave in a trustworthy manner in negotiations. Findings obtained by Christen (2004, 2005) largely supported this prediction: as the perceived trustworthiness of the external group increased, the organization‘s willingness to negotiate with that group increased. The perceived trustworthiness of the other group remained a strong predictor of willingness to negotiate when the influence of perceived power was considered.

Lenhardt and Christen (2011) extended research on willingness to negotiate to collaborative management situations. Among a government agency and special interest groups involved in a collaborative cattle grazing allotment negotiation, perceived power and trust-worthiness were the most frequently cited subjective factors influencing willingness to participate in negotiations. As the perceived power and trustworthiness of the other groups increased, willingness to negotiate increased.

Examining perceptions of power and trustworthiness can help an organization predict which parties are likely to be willing to participate in formal negotiations. Communication strategies can then be devised to encourage parties to come to the negotiation table.


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Christen, C. T. (2005). The utility of coorientional variables as predictors of willingness to negotiate. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 82(1), 7-24.

Christen, C. T. (2004). Predicting willingness to negotiate: The effects of perceived power and trustworthiness in a model of strategic public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(3), 243-267.

Emerson, R. M. (1962). Power-dependence relations. American Sociological Review, 27, 31-41.

Fisher, R. J. (1989). Prenegotiation problem-solving discussions: Enhancing the potential for successful negotiations. In J. G. Stein (Ed.), Getting to the table: The processes of international prenegotiation (pp. 206-218). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hardin, R. (1996). Trustworthiness. Ethics, 107(1), 26-42.

Kasperson, R. W., Golding, D. & Tuler, S. (1992). Social distrust as a factor in siting hazardous facilities and communicating risk. Journal of Social Issues, 48(4), 161-186.

Lawler, E. F. (1986). Bilateral deterrence and conflict spiral: A theoretical analysis. In E. J. Lawler (Ed.), Advances in group processes (vol. 3, pp. 107-130). Greenwich, CT: JAI.

Lenhardt, K. J., & Christen, C. T. (2011). “Encouraging collaboration in natural resource management: An extension of willingness to negotiate using grounded theory.” Paper presented to the Public Relations Division of the International Communication Association, Boston, MA.

Pfeffer, J., & Salancik, G. R. (1978). The external control of organizations: A resource dependence perspective. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

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