When Face-to-Face Falls Short

A new study looks at who's at a disadvantage in face-to-face negotiation meetings. How can your association keep this in mind as it plans and executes its internal and external meetings?

Early last month I blogged about new research that showed that face-to-face meetings significantly outperform other formats when it comes to generating ideas. In fact, the study showed that face-to-face pairs generated 30 percent more ideas than virtual ones [PDF].

When people negotiate from further apart, it affects their whole way of thinking.

But new research presented last week at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference looks at a different side of these face-to-face interactions.  Michael Taylor and his fellow researchers from Imperial College London concluded that face-to-face negotiation meetings tend to favor those in higher positions.

Here’s a brief overview of their research: Taylor and his team conducted two studies in which the same negotiation was conducted face-to-face and then in a 3-D virtual simulation. In the first study, 74 people took part in a two-sided negotiation in which one party had more power than the other. In the second study, 63 people conducted a three-sided negotiation where they were playing the part of people at different levels in a hierarchy.

Results from the first study showed that the side with less power did better in the virtual negotiations than the face-to-face ones. The same held true for the second study as well.

“When people negotiate from further apart, it affects their whole way of thinking. This can mean the contextual details of the negotiations, such as power hierarchies, have less impact on the outcome. This has implications for team negotiation and shared decision-making in the workplace,” said Taylor in a press release.

While the researchers’ conclusions are not all that surprising, and even though they specifically looked at meetings held for the purpose of negotiating, I do wonder if similar conclusions could be drawn if you looked at typical education sessions that occur at association meetings.

For example, say a presenter asks attendees to pair up during a breakout session and come up with what they deem is the best solution to a given problem, which they will then present to the larger group.

If one pair is made up of a CEO and a more junior-level employee and then a second pair is made up of two junior-level employees, I wonder if the junior-level employees would be more comfortable sharing their ideas with an equal-level colleague in pair two than they would in pair one. How likely is it that the junior staffer would go along with presenting one of the CEO’s ideas as “the best” just because it’s the CEO’s?

Along the same lines, I wonder if the comfort level would be different if those same pairs were put in a virtual environment and asked to do the same task. Do people having a little more anonymity (i.e., not standing right in front of the other person) put them at greater ease and make them more comfortable to speak their mind?

The research could also be applied to meetings associations have internally among their own staff, especially when it comes to that “shared decision-making” piece that Taylor referenced in the press release.

How can associations better create meeting environments—both internal for their staff and external for their attendees—where people feel more comfortable to speak up and contribute no matter who’s sitting across the table from them?


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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