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Examining the role of trust in negotiations

Sep 22, 2021, 10:02 by Aaron Bennett
Mingshuang Ji joined Gies this fall as an instructor of business administration. In addition to researching team dynamics, trust, and negotiation, Mingshuang is teaching Business Dynamics (B201) and Business in Action (B301).

Sooner or later, we all have to negotiate something, whether it’s what to binge watch on a Friday night or which country gets to keep what in their nuclear arsenal. Ultimately, some degree of trust is required to successfully complete any negotiation. The question is how much.  And what happens when the level of trust on one side is very different than the level of trust on the other? Are negotiations doomed?

Those are some of the questions that Gies instructor Mingshuang Ji decided to explore in her dissertation at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. “Some people will say it's important to trust your partner and open very genuine communications to get the optimal result for both sides. But some will say that it's risky to trust your negotiating partner because they might take advantage of the information you share,” said Ji. “The question in my research was how to find the optimal level of trust.”

Unsurprisingly, she found that the best outcomes are achieved when there’s a mutual level of trust. Even those who mutually distrust each other can achieve a successful negotiation. Think Reagan and Russia. By implementing an arms reduction with verifications, two traditional enemies found common ground. And the phrase “Trust, but verify” became the catch phrase of the day.

What Ji found surprising, however, is what happens when no real balance of trust can be achieved. “The best outcome is always achieved by mutual trust and a higher level of trust,” said Ji. “But what I found interesting was that when asymmetrical trust happens within the dyad, the outcome is actually worse than mutual trust at lower levels.”

She also thought trust levels would always naturally converge at some point in a negotiation, but that wasn’t always the case. “I assumed that negotiations would start with some sort of discrepancies and those discrepancies would decrease over time, but my current findings do not support this. It seems that congruence does not show up spontaneously. Negotiators need to be trained to detect trust discrepancy and match their trust with their partners’ dynamically during the process of negotiation ”

In addition to researching team dynamics, trust, and negotiation, Ji has a passion for teaching, a skill she honed at York where she earned the Schulich Teaching Excellence Award in 2018. At Gies, Ji will be teaching Business in Action (B301), the nation’s largest experiential learning course where students work as a team to manage an actual client project. Ji says she’s very excited about the class, as well as the opportunity to work with the outstanding faculty at Gies.

“Gies is one of the very top management schools,” said Ji. “There are many fantastic researchers, scholars, and faculty members, and I really look forward to meeting them and learning from them.” Eventually, she also hopes to help expand the curriculum at Gies.

Ji, who earned a master’s of philosophy in management and gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says she would like to teach a course on diversity and inclusion at Gies.

“Sometimes there are different kinds of pressure that are not experienced by other people who don’t share a certain identity,” she said. “They face different kinds of challenges both from their family and at work. Because our culture is getting more diverse, I think students might want to know how to cope with their identities in the increasingly diverse workplace”

Maybe it’s something she can negotiate. It sounds like a total win/win.