Distributive vs. Integrative Approach in Negotiation

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Two business men negotiate.
Two business men negotiate. (Image: Monkey Business Images Ltd/Monkey Business/Getty Images)

Distributive and integrative styles of negotiation refer to two different ways negotiators approach the bargaining table. For novice negotiators, the "winner takes all" mentality of distributive negotiating may seem the only way to go, and indeed, if that's the only technique one party uses, the other will be forced to use it, as well. However, for more complex negotiations involving numerous issues, integrative negotiation offers a more cooperative approach, tailored to achieving mutual gains.

Expanded Pie vs. Fixed Pie

Conceptually, the distributive approach to negotiating can be depicted as a fixed pie, where if one party gets a bigger slice, the other gets less, whereas the integrative approach expands the pie to accommodate multiple possibilities. As Michael R. Carrell and Christina Heavrin J.D. note in Negotiating Essentials: Theory, Skills, and Practices, the aims of integrative negotiation are twofold: to create as much value for both sides and to generate as much value for your own side. Contrastingly, distributive negotiation focuses on maximizing the value of your own position, without concern for what the other party wants from the deliberations.

Relationships, Interests and Information

The two approaches to negotiation differ in how the parties interact and share with each other. In distributive negotiating, there is no concern for any ongoing relationship, and the negotiation is seen as a one-time activity. Interests are concealed, as is information. On the other hand, integrative negotiators seek to continue associating with the other side over the long haul. They share their interests with the other party and explain those interests through shared information.

Strategies and Tactics

Each approach has its own toolbox of techniques: distributive negotiating involves discovering the other side's resistance point -- or point of no-can-do -- and influencing that point, whether by convincing the other party to change it, or convincing that side it has gotten the best possible deal. In integrative negotiation, the categorization method first exchanges information and identifies issues, then classifies the resulting list of issues as "compatible," "approximately equal" or "not compatible." Each issue type is dealt with in turn, with agreement to be reached on compatible ones, an exchange achieved for equal ones and a distributive approach to handle the rest.

Mixed Motives

Distributive and integrative negotiating may appear to be polar opposites, but as MIT professor Mary P. Rowe states, they share some common ground. They are both concerned with persuading the other side to modify its original stance. Further, they both want people to feel that whatever may ultimately be decided, it was the best outcome possible. In the negotiating trenches, one style might give way to another, as parties use a mixture of both types depending on the circumstances. In the categorization technique, the distributive approach is the last resort and, at that late stage of bargaining, no longer as divisive because earlier integrative collaboration has created a positive negotiating climate.

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