For those familiar with the ‘standard’ Harvard model of negotiation and mediation, one of the core elements to focus on is commitments – that is, the firm outcomes that the parties commit to (and not merely acquiesce in) as a result of the process of negotiation. The dual value – at least – of this is, first, the attention paid to ensuring that the parties work towards common goals; and second, the emphasis given to commitments as a stronger form of verifiable, actionable outcome than mere agreements.
However . . . a reservation, and one that arises from reflection on different cultural styles and norms of mediation: –
The assumption of this model is that the parties, being rational, autonomous, mutually-disinterested, utility maximising, interest-oriented agents, will work towards such commitments: ideally, parties in disputes (or transactions) will work towards an outcome that reflects and embodies their commitments. Failing that, parties will turn to whatever alternatives they might see as preferable to the outcome that is on the table – alternatives ranging from simply walking away from the transaction or the relationship, through to seeking more formal institutional assistance, or litigation, or a return to violent conflict.
But the reality may also be that, at least in some cultures, the parties do not fit that mould.
That we are taken to have, and can prioritise, our interests reflects a set of cultural norms about autonomy, agency and choice that do not necessarily hold for all contexts. It is assumed that we share the same cognitive tools and processes for reasoning about our preferences and outcomes. However, in drawing on the work for Richard Nisbett, comparative psychology indicates that we do not share common understandings of the nature and role of reasoning.
If there are cultural differences in the perception, definition and management of disputes, it follows that not all participants will see the issues at stake in the same interest-oriented terms: they will also see disputes as values-based and as dependent upon hierarchical relationships.
In this respect, one dimension of cultural difference – power distance – provides a useful way of thinking about this likelihood that, while some negotiators work towards commitments, others with work from commitments they already have.
“Power distance”, as a dimension of cultural difference, has two main elements: first, the empirical, descriptive fact of differentials in power (whether political, hierarchical, economic or other); and second, the perceptual, attitudinal acceptance of that distribution of power.
The second aspect of power distance is of more immediate importance in that the acceptance of differentials both affects conduct and commitments, and can legitimate unequal relationships and outcomes. This is potentially problematic simply because the norms of Western mediation rest on a number of assumptions including:
– full participation in problem analysis and resolution;
– the agency of participants – that is, their capacity and willingness to engage in decision-making;
– the relative informality of the process (which, as we will see, is likely to be difficult in high power distance cultures);
– the relatively low substantive authority of the intermediary; and
– the emphasis on interest-based bargaining, which assumes not only that the parties are attending to negotiable interests rather than values but also that the interests are subject to the bargaining choices and mandates of the parties.
In terms of disputing or transacting parties’ perception of their freedom to seek and make commitments, there are several observations we can draw from this model: First, there will be noticeable differences in the ways in which people will conduct themselves when the relationships are seen to be hierarchical, marked by a tendency to submissiveness. Second, hierarchical relationships have an impact on preferred modes of decision-making; and the more autonomous, participative modes of engagement are less likely to be preferred.
It is likely that what the low-power distance culture negotiator would see as “indecisiveness” or “evasiveness” – that is, a “reluctance to commit” – on the part of a high-PD individual is in fact deference to authority and an avoidance of pre-empting the decision-making role of superiors. Decision-making will reflect the perceived or understood structure of authority.
To go back to basics on this dimension of difference, the key is that, whatever the actual structures of power might be, people from high-PD cultures believe in the legitimacy of power differentials and accept that power and hierarchy are facts of life.
This dimension of difference turns on relationships in negotiation and mediation. Those patterns of relationships influence commitments – those either that the parties can make or that they have and accept. Commitments in turn reflect the levels of trust in relationships: for high power distance culture members, the complex of expectations depends heavily on a foundation of trust. Status-based trust is based on hierarchically structured relationships and carries with it a commensurate set of obligations or commitments, unlike the trust that may be fostered through reputation and the implementation of open transactions and transparent decision-making criteria.
The Western assumption is that interest-based, rational processes engaged in by autonomous agents are the most likely to lead not only to commitments but also to legitimate outcomes – neither of which can be assumed on the part of high-PD participants. High-PD participants will have an implicit preference for hierarchical decision-making and a discomfort with expectations of higher levels of participation.
The point is that, in the differing contexts of high- and low-power distance, individuals will feel themselves less or more free respectively to engage in debate, to argue, to create the rules of engagement, to create the norms for outcomes, and to make commitments. This is both a relational matter, reflecting patterns of obligation, hierarchy, autonomy; and a cognitive matter, reflecting the degree to which the individual understands and perceives their context.
The research on which this note is based principally addresses the distinctions in cognitive and perceptual orientation between Western and East Asian subjects. Useful sources include:
N Basabe & M Ros, “Cultural dimensions and social behavior correlates: Individualism-Collectivism and Power Distance,” Revue Internationale de Psychologie Sociale, 18 (1) 189-225 .
G. Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, (London; McGraw-Hill), 2001
S. Bochner, & B. Hesketh, “Power distance, individualism/collectivism, and job-related attitudes in a culturally diverse work group,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 25: 233-257(1994)
H. S. Woo, & C. Prud’homme, “Cultural characteristics prevalent in the Chinese negotiation process”, European Business Review, vol. 99, no. 5, pp. 313-322 (1999)
Rebecca S. Merkin, “Power distance and facework strategies,” Jnl of Intercultural Communication Research, 35: 139-160, p.146 (2006)
Tyler, T. R., Lind, E. A. & Huo, Yuen, J. “Cultural values and authority relations: The psychology of conflict resolution across cultures,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 6 (4): 1138-1163 (2000).
F. Trompenaars & C. Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, 2nd ed, (London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1997),
C. Lee, M. Pillutla, & K. S. Law, “Power-Distance, Gender and Organizational Justice,” Jnl of Management, 26: 685-704, 685 (2000)
Joel Brockner et al, “Culture and Procedural Justice: The Influence of Power Distance on Reactions to Voice,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 37, Issue 4, July 2001, 300-315
Tyler, T. R., Lind, E. A. & Huo, Yuen, J. “Cultural values and authority relations: The psychology of conflict resolution across cultures,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 6 (4), 1138-1163. (2000).
 Richard E Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why, (New York, Free Press, 2003)