Why All Leaders Should Negotiate Like Women

Because having that critical skill might help them save the world.

Why All Leaders Should Negotiate Like Women

IN NOVEMBER 2018, I worked with my colleague Terry Babcock-Lumish to prepare an article for The Conversation, a website where researchers share their ideas with audiences outside academia. In it, we write that, “As scholars who study political leadership, we believe more women will be good for Congress for a fundamental reason: They may just get a broken system working again.”

Now, in 2020, the number of women in the U.S. Congress has reached an all-time high. We are excited to see the nation reach this milestone not only because it represents more fair and equal representation for American women, but also because research suggests that women leaders often possess skills that our country and world desperately need.

Research and experience both indicate that women are more likely to use inclusive both/and thinking. That is, they see conflict and tensions not as problems, but as opportunities to gain input from both sides. In contrast, men are more likely to adopt either/or thinking, an attitude that is more likely to advance their own agendas during conflict while denigrating those of the other side. At a time when collaboration across political boundaries is hard to come by, the ability to adopt both/and thinking could be a major asset to Congress.

The fact that both/and thinking promotes collaboration might also explain why the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a nonpartisan think tank based in New York City, has found that peace talks where women had strong influence at the negotiating table were more likely to end in an agreement. In a qualitative review of 40 peace and constitution drafting negotiations since 1990, the CFR also found that these agreements were more likely to endure over time.


We can find many real-world examples of what happens when women apply both/and thinking to resolving contentious issues. These examples include Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership of the United Nations working group that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. Another is the leadership of five female senators who came together to break the stalemate that shut down the U.S. federal government for 16 days in 2013.

More recently, Representative Nita M. Lowey, a Democrat from New York, and Representative Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas, have been working together as leaders of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations to negotiate bipartisan terms on issues such as immigration and federal spending. “The women are taking over,” the late Arizona Senator John McCain joked in 2013. These days, McCain’s commentary seems less a joke than a political need.

Other research applies the CFR’s findings to teams of all kinds. For example, in a study published in Science in 2010, Anita Woolley and her team divided almost 700 volunteers into groups of two to five people. They found that teams with more women consistently outperformed teams with more men.

In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Woolley and co-author Thomas Malone suggest that successful teams included more people with higher emotional intelligence and social sensitivity—and that women are more likely to demonstrate these qualities. Women might use their ability to read and respond to the emotional states of others to help team members work more effectively as a group. In a follow-up study, published in 2015 in the Public Library of Science, the team discovered that their original findings held true whether teams met online or offline.


While women might more naturally adopt collaborative approaches, my research with colleagues Marianne Lewis and Mike Tushman finds that both/and thinking is valuable for everyone. The challenge for business schools is to find ways to teach these behaviors to students of all genders. How can we train all students to be more collaborative, team-oriented, and inclusive?

First, we can teach students to shift away from either/or approaches, in which they respond to differences by provoking conflict, and instead embrace both/and engagement, in which they respond to difference by promoting synergies. In my undergraduate classes, graduate classes, and executive seminars, I teach students that the most critical and easiest step they can take during any negotiation is to switch from asking “Who is right?” to asking “How can both sides engage and accommodate competing demands simultaneously?” I share research by Ella Miron-Spektor, Francesca Gino, and Linda Argote, which shows that people who make this switch come up with more creative ideas.

Next, we can bring in speakers who have experience engaging in complex thinking about problems and working through collaborative team dynamics. Students find the stories these leaders tell inspiring and instructive.

Finally, we must support classes, extracurricular activities, and campus initiatives that help students cultivate cooperative mindsets. This means immersing them in highly experiential work where they must face challenging situations before having to reflect and regroup. We must invite them to note their own emotional and cognitive responses, understand their own biases and reflexes, and think about the wide range of behaviors they could adopt.


At the University of Delaware’s Lerner College of Business & Economics in Newark, I put these ideas into action in my course Leadership from Within. This course runs for one week, Monday through Friday, from nine to five each day; students work in teams to identify and implement a bold vision by the end of the week. The challenge is uncertain, open-ended, and time-pressured, just like situations that students will experience in the real world.

Even so, the students often rebel: They want more specificity. They want a longer time horizon. They dislike the discomfort they feel as the pressure of the situation forces them to face—and push beyond—their own anxieties and fears.

Because of the time pressure, some group members want to come to a consensus on a vision and move to implementation quickly. One team member might offer an initial decision and push to implement this plan; the other members begin to feel marginalized and start to resist the process. In the end, the group is forced to return to its starting point.

Eventually, students discover the value of spending time to work through the challenge together. They learn to be patient and encourage their team members to engage multiple points of view from the beginning—they learn that they have to go slow to go fast. Most important, they learn to recognize the value of cultivating trust, listening to one another, and building on each other’s ideas rather than jumping straight into execution mode. My students report that they find the experience demanding and incredibly enlightening.

The Lerner Women’s Leadership Forum takes a similar approach. Informed by the latest research, the forum targets the leadership needs of professional women. We focus on women who are hitting the thickest part of the glass ceiling after they have been in the workforce for five to ten years, and who want to know how to boost their leadership journey to the next level. At the forum, we help the women focus on bold goals, as well as hone and apply their natural skills in collaboration and complex thinking. The forum provides these women with not only a powerful network, but also a women-only space where they can address gender-based issues that might not emerge in other programs. Over 30 percent of the participants have moved into new roles within a year.

Experiences like these can encourage women to develop their inherent strengths. But we also should design similar workshops that equip leaders of any gender with collaborative skills. As research shows, organizations see improved performance under women’s leadership—specifically because women are more likely to apply collaborative skills to seemingly intractable problems. Helping all students strengthen these same skills could be some of the most important and world-changing work business schools can do.

Wendy Smith

Wendy Smith is a professor of management at the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics in Newark, Delaware, and co-founder of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at UD.


This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].