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How to Keep Your Cool in High-Stakes Negotiations

Study examines how students and employees can reclaim their power during challenging situations

About to negotiate a raise with your boss? Stressed about a meeting with a high-profile client? There’s a simple, easy-to-do exercise to prep you for these tough situations — take a few minutes to review your strengths.

A research study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, led by a team at the Rotman School of Management, shows that taking a moment to assess your best qualities leads to better results when negotiating a high-stakes deal with someone who has more power than you.


“Plan ahead and think about all of the potential obstacles you may encounter and what skills you already have to take on those challenges.”

— Sonia Kang, Assistant Professor, Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management with the Department of Management


Previously, many researchers had explored the phenomenon of stereotype threat, a situation where individuals might perform poorly at an activity because of unfounded generalizations about race, gender, age or other attributes.

Sonia Kang, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management with the Department of Management at UTM, took this concept a step further to see how expectations, pressure and power dynamics might play out in interactions in the workplace.

Kang, who holds a cross-appointment with the Rotman School of Management, was curious about how employees could combat the pressures that come with negotiating with someone in a higher position of power.

“When people are told that they are going to perform poorly, whether it’s on a test or in a certain job position, they usually perform down to those expectations,” says Kang. “Interestingly, we found that through self-affirmation these individuals could counter these negative effects and perform much better than they or others expected.”

In this study, Kang and her colleagues ran experiments where participants were paired off and set up to negotiate the selling price of a hypothetical product that was in demand. In each pairing, one partner was assigned the higher-power role of the seller, while the other partner took on the lower-power role of buyer.

To add a bit of pressure, the researchers told certain pairs that they would be evaluated on how well they performed during the negotiation exercise.

Generally, Kang and colleagues found that buyers who were under pressure tended to walk away with worse deals, settling for higher purchasing prices, than buyers who weren’t under that same pressure.

Curious about whether there was a way for the buyers to improve their performances, Kang re-ran the high-pressure negotiation experiment again — but this time, she asked some buyers to reflect and write down the qualities that made them good negotiators. The result: these buyers tended to reach better deals (i.e. negotiated lower purchasing prices) than their peers who did not complete the self-affirmation exercise.

Kang advises students and corporate teams to consider this approach when embarking on complex or difficult projects.

“When you are in the midst of a high-stakes situation, it can be very emotional and flustering, so it will be very difficult to come up with strategies in the moment” explains Kang. “Don't wait until you are faced with a difficult situation to try to figure out how you will overcome it and succeed. Instead, you need to plan ahead and think about all of the potential obstacles you may encounter and what skills you already have to take on those challenges.”

Meet the Researcher

Sonia Kang

Sonia Kang

Assistant Professor, Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management with the Department of Management

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