As it turned out, the key contact's boss was the real decision maker in
this interaction, so he and I were able to quickly reach agreement. For some reason or other, the others involved in the negotiation just
had not wanted me to know about this up to that point.
A common experience? Probably not. But it refreshed an important
lesson: when negotiating with U.S. companies, do what it takes to identify the decision maker and deal with that person. Otherwise, you may
be spinning your wheels. This may not be true for every U.S. firm, but it certainly is for most of them. In this individualistic business
culture, decision making is normally not a team sport, so if dealing with people who don't 'have the say,' they become little more than
messengers complicating the exchange.
Is this a universal finding? (Ok, let's be honest here: would I write
about it if it was?) Sure not. Business cultures have a strong influence on how people and companies around the world make
decisions, as a result of which styles are very different.
(Over-)simplistic cultural models describe two camps: individualistic
cultures, which imply lone decisions, and collectivist ones, where decisions are apparently the result of some kind of pow-wow involving
everyone. Both assumptions would be naive. The reality of business decision making around the globe is complex and demands careful consideration.
Two factors matter most: how individualistic a national (and corporate) culture is, and to what extent decision making is delegated down
from the top.
Individual Decision Making
Business decisions in most individualistic cultures are normally made by
individuals. In Australia and the U.S., to some degree also in Canada, Northern Europe, and Israel, authority is also frequently
delegated to low levels in the hierarchy. The decider might consider inputs from others, but doing so is usually not a requirement for
decision making here. Unlike in my above personal story, identifying the person is normally easy.
In most other individualistic cultures, which pretty much leaves most
European ones, authority is not as readily delegated. The lead negotiator usually has at least some decision power but often needs higher
management approval before sealing a deal. Others may be involved in the negotiation if particular knowledge or competencies are required.
This is most pronounced in the U.K., where decisions often appear to be made committee-style, even though there is usually still one
person who ultimately makes the decision. In France, managers often informally consult with peers, too, before closing the deal.
While the influence of others should never be underestimated, the common
denominator for this group of countries is that reaching agreement ultimately requires winning the support of a single key person.
Group Decision Making
Negotiations in countries whose cultures reflect greater group orientation,
which includes almost all of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as well as parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, for example Greece and
Turkey, tend to be more complex than the above. Interestingly, most companies in these countries have strict corporate hierarchies. It
would nevertheless be a mistake to consider the people at the top of these organizations to be sole decision makers.
Even seemingly autocratic executives, who are almost the norm in countries
such as India, Indonesia, Mexico, or South Korea, solicit and consider inputs from those affected by a decision before making it. In other
cultures, for example in China and Japan, decision making is often a process of formal and informal deliberations designed to reach a
group decision that has everyone's support. This does not at all mean that every voice carries equal weight—but it will likely be
considered. The role of the executive is to orchestrate the process and to make sure the decision is made and communicated.
Business negotiations with members of any of these cultures are regularly
conducted in teams, although one-on-one negotiating can be found, too. In either case, there will be others not participating in the
interactions who nevertheless influence the eventual decision. Successful negotiation strategies for dealing with these cultures therefore
require winning the support of all influential members of the group, as well as that of the person at the top.
As you can see, the biggest difference between individual and group decision
making is that with the latter approach, focusing your efforts on only one person is not a promising strategy, no matter how powerful the
person. That may be another lesson worth memorizing.