Disentangling complexity: how negotiators identify and handle issue-based complexity in business-to-business negotiation

Abstract

Research regarding the complex content and issues in business-to-business (B2B) negotiation is sparse. Although negotiation issues are ubiquitous in experimental negotiation studies, descriptions of what constitutes a complex issue are set in an abstract context. Therefore, this study investigates the characteristics of real-world negotiation issues and their associated complexity drivers. Data from 29 in-depth interviews of managers in the B2B field provide the research material, analyzed according to the Gioia methodology. Eleven issue-based complexity facets emerge that fall into the object-, context- and subject-level of complexity. Eight strategies for handling complex negotiation issues also result from the analysis. The findings provide a detailed description of issue-based complexity, which can be used to create more realistic negotiation experiments, as well as help negotiators disentangle and manage complex content in their own B2B negotiations. By answering the call from research for a more detailed description of complex negotiations, and by linking handling strategies with specific situations, this study provides further insights for negotiation theory.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    While the respective authors explicitly write about the number of issues on an agenda, the mechanism to increase complexity of many issues on an agenda or many sub-issues in an issue is the same: a higher or varying number of parts in a system.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Gesa von Plotho for her assistance in data collection and transcription. Sabrina Gottschalk, Alexander Mafael, and Hong Zhang commented on earlier versions of this article. Elisabeth Nevins served as copy editor.

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Correspondence to Christoph Laubert.

Appendix: interview guide

Appendix: interview guide

Preliminary remarks:

The aim of this research is to understand more about the topic of content complexity in negotiations and how to manage it. The goal of this interview is to use your knowledge and personal experience in negotiations to develop insights for negotiation research.

In the upcoming interview I will ask open questions to give you the possibility to answer however you think is right and to not influence your answers.

Of course, the gathered data will be kept confidential and anonymous and only be used for research purposes. All the names and companies you will mention in the interview will only be written down in an anonymous from. To be able to analyze the content of our conversation, I would kindly ask you if I am allowed to record our interview. Are you okay with that?

For your information: I am interested in the complex content of negotiation situations. In this interview, I will talk about negotiation issues. With negotiation issues, I mean any debatable question, item, or problem that is open to discussion or dispute, and needs to be solved to come to a mutual agreement between at least two parties. As an example you can think about a price for a product or the date of delivery.

Do you have any further questions before I start with the interview?

Part 1: personal background and complex negotiation in general

  • In which industry is your company? Who are your customers?

  • What is your job at the moment?

  • Which role do you have in the negotiation? At what time did you start to be involved in the negotiation process?

  • How many years of negotiation experience do you have?

  • What is a typical issue you negotiate?

  • If you think about your last negotiation, which is especially present in your memory, was there anything complex in this negotiation?

Part 2: identification and handling of complex negotiation issues

  • Please describe with an example one issue that was negotiated that was especially complex to you. Why was the negotiation of this issue complex?

  • What are the characteristics of a complex issue? Any more?

  • Can you give me an example where complexity arises through (a) one issue, (b) multiple issues?

  • Did you have the feeling that the other party also perceived the negotiation issue as complex? If not, why?

  • Did the issue complexity change in the negotiation process? Can you give me an example?

  • Do you have a certain strategy to handle complex issues?

  • When do you negotiate complex issues?

  • Can you give me an example, when a complex issue did (a) negatively (b) positively influence the negotiation?

  • How would you describe the effort in negotiating complex issues in comparison to less complex issues?

  • Do you think the effort is always justified for the complex issues? Why?

  • What role does time pressure in the negotiation of complex issues?

  • When did you experience (a) advantages (b) disadvantages while negotiating complex issue under time pressure?

  • Do you stop a negotiation about a single issue, if you do not make any progress anymore?

Part 3: identification and handling of important negotiation issues

  • Please describe with an example one issue that was negotiated that was especially important to you.

  • Are complex issues always important issues?

  • Do you have a certain strategy to handle important issues?

  • When do you negotiate important issues?

  • Did the issue importance change in the negotiation process? Can you give me an example?

  • Did you have the feeling that the other party also perceived the negotiation issue to be important? If not, why?

Part 4: interaction of complex and important negotiation issues

  • When you prepare a negotiation, do you think about prioritizing your negotiation issues?

  • Which issues do you give a high priority? Why?

  • Which issues do you give a low priority? Why?

  • In the process of my study, I experienced that negotiation parties discussed a negotiation issue for too long, however the issue was not important. Do you know such a situation?

  • What do you do if a negotiation issue with a low priority is taking a long time?

  • If a negotiation did fail, what kinds of issues were the reasons you did not come to a mutual agreement?

Part 5: conclusion

  • Thank you for your participation and your time. Do you have any further important aspects, which you think we have not talked about in this interview regarding this topic?

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Laubert, C., Geiger, I. Disentangling complexity: how negotiators identify and handle issue-based complexity in business-to-business negotiation. J Bus Econ 88, 1061–1103 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11573-018-0896-6

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Keywords

  • Buyer–seller negotiation
  • Complexity
  • Negotiation strategy
  • Negotiation issue
  • Gioia methodology

JEL Classification

  • D7
  • M10
  • M310