My wife sometimes reminds me to avoid shaking hands with people I meet if they exhibit signs of being sick, like sniffling or coughing. But this is tough for me, as it’s just an ingrained habit I’ve had for 40 years.
It turns out that this habit can actually make a significant difference in certain types of negotiations.
A few years ago, some prominent business school professors did a series of experiments that were summarized in the Harvard Business School “Working Knowledge” article “Shaky Business: How Handshakes Win Negotiations,” finding that:
shaking hands is a powerful gesture that creates a cooperative spirit and leads to better outcomes on both sides of the table.”
These professors included:
– University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business Professor Juliana Schroeder, and
– University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business Professor Jane Risen.
Interestingly, this “shaking hands” habit is also quite consistent across cultures. According to Professor Norton, this “form of physical contact is surprisingly ubiquitous. . . . We shake when we say hello to someone, and we shake again after a deal is done.”
Three caveats. One, the gains disappeared in a study where the participants believed they might be shaking hands with a sick and possibly infectious person. So if you appear sick, don’t shake hands – but then let your counterpart know why and find another way to signal cooperation (like an elbow bump).
Two, it might not help if you know the negotiation is a super competitive all-or-nothing zero-sum-oriented negotiation. Keep in mind, though, that many negotiators prematurely make this assumption and don’t sufficiently seek cooperation and mutual gains early on. In that case, they can easily leave value on the table by foregoing the shake.
And three, despite the potential value lost by not shaking in competitive zero-sum negotiations, I just find it more professional in most of these circumstances to exhibit this small bit of courtesy. The value you might lose by shaking, to me, is thus almost always outweighed by the professional courtesy exhibited with the shake.
Of course, this must be mutual. If your counterpart refuses to shake when you meet due to the nature of the negotiation – don’t extend your hand unless their behavior and changed circumstances warrant it.
Latz’s Lesson: Little things like a handshake can make a big difference in negotiations.
* Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.