Nothing to Lose: Effective Negotiating Even When “Powerless”

Michael Schaerer

Most negotiators prefer to have a “fall back position.”
However, having no alternatives and less power than co-negotiators can improve outcomes, found INSEAD’s Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab with Adam Galinsky of Columbia.

Alternatives enable negotiators to gain concessions from co-negotiators because they have a BATNA – Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, defined by Harvard’s Roger Fisher and William Ury.

Roger Fisher

Roger Fisher

When an alternative is weak, it can undermine negotiating outcomes more than having no alternative because it establishes an “anchor point” based on competing options.

Anchoring is a frequent cognitive bias characterized by overvaluing one piece of information, according to Hebrew University’s late Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton.

William Ury

William Ury

Negotiators usually anchor on the value of alternatives when making a first offer, and people with weak alternatives generally make lower first offers than those with no alternative.
“Lowball” first offers based on few or poor alternatives usually undermine a negotiator’s final outcome.

Professional athletes and their agents provide examples of negotiating better deals when they have no “back up” offers and “nothing to lose,” so they can set ambitious anchor points.

Amos Tversky

Amos Tversky

In a separate study, Schaerer and team asked a hundred people whether they would prefer to negotiate a job offer with a weak alternative or without any alternative.
More than 90 percent of participants preferred an unattractive alternative offer, confirming the popular assumption that any alternative is  better than no alternative.

Another of Schaerer’s lab studies asked volunteers to imagine selling a used music CD by The Rolling Stones.
Participants were randomly assigned to three groups which received different information about their negotiation situations:

  • No offers (no alternative),
  • One offer at USD $2 (weak alternative),
  • A bid at USD $8 (strong alternative).
Roderick Swaab

Roderick Swaab

Volunteers in each group proposed a first offer, and rated the degree of power they felt.
Not surprisingly, people with the strong alternative felt the most powerful and those with no alternative felt the least powerful.

However, people with a weak alternative felt more powerful than those with no alternative, but they made lower first offers, signaling less confidence than participants with no alternative.
Having any alternative can help people feel powerful but can undermine negotiation performance.

Schaerer’s team explored this paradox by pairing a  “seller,” who offered a coffee mug during a face-to-face meeting, and a potential “buyer.”

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky

Before the meeting, the seller received a phone call from “another buyer,” who was actually a confederate of the researchers.
For half of the “sellers,” the potential buyer either made a low offer or declined to bid.

“Sellers” without an alternative offer said they felt less powerful, but made higher first offers and received significantly higher sales prices than negotiators with an unattractive alternative.

In another situation, half of the “sellers” concentrated on available alternatives (none, weak, or strong) and the remaining negotiators focused on the target price.

Volunteers with unappealing alternatives negotiated worse deals than those with no options when they focused on alternatives.
“Sellers” avoided this pitfall by concentrating on the target price.
These findings support the benefit of focusing on the goal when alternatives are weak, and the power of first-offer anchors.

Negotiators with non-existent or unappealing alternatives can beware of making cautious first offers when they feel powerless.
Instead, negotiators can set audacious goals and make an ambitious opening offer because they have the benefit of “nothing to lose.”

  • How do you overcome lowball anchoring when you have few negotiation alternatives?


©Kathryn Welds

2 thoughts on “Nothing to Lose: Effective Negotiating Even When “Powerless”

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Gary W. Kelly wrote:
    This article goes well with an earlier one I posted a few weeks ago:

    Negotiating: Careful choice of words increases chances of success –

    We all need to learn more about negotiating as it is an activity we will all have to do more in many aspects of our lives. Learning skills in one area can only help in all those other areas where it will be necessary.

    Kathryn Welds replied:
    Thanks very much, Gary, for the reminder of the significant impact of word choice in developing effective negotiation offers..
    Related considerations include:

    Range Offers vs Point Offers in Negotiation for Advantageous Settlements –

    “Precise” Offers Provide Negotiation Advantage –

    Negotiation Drama: Strategic Umbrage, Line-Crossing Illusion and Assertiveness Biases –

    How Effective are Strategic Threats, Anger, and Unpredictability in Negotiations?

    Power Tactics for Better Negotiation –


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