Tough Guys Finish Last In Negotiations (A Study)

Finishes last? (Photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

Negotiators consider, (i) the reputation of the opposition, in an effort to decrease uncertainty, and (ii) their own reputations, recognizing that past behaviors can influence future efforts.

A study examines the effects of a negotiator’s tough guy reputation on negotiation processes (fn. 1, the “Study”).

Distributive (Tough Guy) v. Integrative (Cooperative) Negotiation

Two important concepts in the Study are distributive and integrative:

  • a “distributive” negotiator pursues a win/lose competition—and attempts to win [that’s the “tough guy” in the Study]; while
  • an “integrative” negotiator looks for a win/win solution—for ways to add value for everyone.

Editorial Note.  To illustrate, here’s how the distributive / integrative distinction works out during a business reorganization in bankruptcy:

  • everyone must work together to maximize the value of debtor’s assets [that’s “integrative” activity]; and
  • otherwise, there will be no pot-of-gold to fight over in the end [that’s “distributive” activity].

Reputation Defined

Reputations are not a summary of haphazard traits.  Instead, reputations are a set of characteristics that form a person’s image.  

In negotiations, that image informs others about a negotiator’s character, and it helps them anticipate the negotiator’s actions and interpret underlying intent.

Uncertainty abounds in negotiations because the parties rarely know, for sure, what the other party cares about or what the other party’s alternatives might be. So, reputations help a negotiator interpret the meaning of the other party’s actions.

Perils of a tough guy reputation

Negotiators must work together to create joint benefits, while trying to claim a large individual portion of the benefits created. But when negotiations are more distributive than integrative, the potential for creating joint value is minimized.

Most negotiations have significant integrative potential.  So, a tough guy reputation is a handicap. That’s because a win/win solution requires tradeoffs and cooperation, like:

  • sharing information, so parties can understand what the other cares about; 
  • proposing trades that meet the other party’s interests;
  • building rapport and creating an environment of trust; and
  • offer other resources to consider. 

Such requirements are undercut by a negotiator’s tough guy reputation.

When a negotiator learns that the opponent has a tough guy reputation, the image that comes to mind is of someone making extreme offers, conceding little, threatening, etc.  Such an image:

  • impairs the opponent’s willingness to be vulnerable and share information about interests and priorities; 
  • limits the parties’ ability to find joint benefits; and 
  • damages the outcome for all.

The result: tough guy negotiators routinely fail to optimize outcomes.

Study Findings

The Study’s data confirm that a tough guy reputation is harmful in negotiations because opposing negotiators expect negative intentions.  And they react accordingly:

  • they become reluctant to share information; and 
  • they respond in-kind, by behaving more like a tough guy.

Thus, a tough guy reputation in negotiation impedes the creation of both value for all sides and value for each individual side.

Implications for negotiators

Negotiators should be wary of developing a tough guy reputation: 

  • because it undercuts integrative possibilities;
  • so that opposing negotiators aren’t induced to act like tough guys in return; and
  • because it inhibits opposing negotiators from taking risks needed for high quality settlements.

Negotiators should also avoid pre-judging opposing negotiators based on limited reputation information, because:

  • even an unjustified tough guy reputation influences perceptions and behaviors negatively; and
  • it creates a harmful self-fulfilling prophesy that constrains both parties’ actions and limits both parties’ benefits.


Here’s the moral of the Study: when integrative solutions are available, tough guy negotiators finish last.


Footnote 1.  The study is titled, “Tough guys finish last: the perils of a distributive reputation,” is by Catherine H. Tinsley, Katherine M. O’Connor and Brandon A. Sullivan, and is published by Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process 88 (2002) 621-642.

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