Ethical Lapses in Negotiations - A Male Tendency - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #210

Ethical Lapses in Negotiations – A Male Tendency

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.
Main Image
Main Image


Do women act more ethically than men? According to this Idea, yes they do, particularly during negotiations; men tend to be more pragmatic in their ethical reasoning at the bargaining table than women, especially when they feel like their masculinity is being threatened. 


The concept of negotiation as a ‘battle of the sexes’ is not new; in fact, in the 1990s, MBA students on a negotiation course were asked who they thought had the advantage in negotiations, and the overwhelming reply was ‘men’. This perception has little changed today. But according to this Idea, women have higher ethical standards than men, particularly in business contexts.

Berkeley Haas Professor Laura Kray and her co-researcher Michael Haselhuhn ask, if Bernie Madoff — convicted of and renowned for securities fraud — had been born Bernadette? They suggest that ethical lapses on the part of men seems to be motivated by situational threats to their masculinity; in other words, when a man feels like he has ‘something to prove’ or defend against, he may become more aggressive and competitive. But the same result does not occur when a woman’s femininity is threatened. So perhaps Bernadette would not have allowed such egregious ethical lapses at Madoff Securities to occur!

Kray and Haselhuhn demonstrated this through a series of four experiments, concluding that there exists a “robust pattern by which men are more pragmatic in their reasoning at the bargaining table than women.” Pragmatism here refers to the ability to judge ethicality on the basis of practical consequences.

Specifically, their findings included the following:

  • Competitive and aggressive behaviour on the part of men appears to be motivated by situational threats to their masculinity (i.e. when they feel they have something to prove or defend against).
  • In win-lose tasks such as negotiations, men indicated lower ethical standards than women, and this difference was driven by the perception that negotiations have masculinity implications.
  • Men viewed negotiator deception to be more ethical when they did it than when a third party did so.
  • For men, fixed negotiation beliefs predicted lower ethical standards than malleable beliefs.
  • When under pressure to ‘prove themselves’, men became more lenient in their ethical standards. Similarly, ethical standards changed depending on which role men played in a scenario or, for example, who it was that did the lying; but women's ethical codes stayed consistent throughout the manipulations.

Methodology: Across four experiments, the researchers looked into the gender gap that emerges in negotiator ethics. For each experiment, the participants involved were business school students. Three experiments involved evaluated scenarios and providing advice, testing whether the participants viewed behaviours such as dishonesty as ethical or not. In the final experiment, they measured “implicit negotiation beliefs” through a survey, which gauged the perceived appropriateness of ethically ambiguous negotiation tactics.


The findings in this Idea suggest men are more lenient in their judgements of ethically ambiguous negotiating tactics than women. This is driven, in part, by the masculinity implications embedded in negotiations. Consequently, when conducting or taking part in negotiations, men and managers of male negotiators should an aware of this tendency; and to avoid settings that may cause lapses in ethical standards managers should consider the virtue of including men and women in negotiating teams to reduce the likelihood of this taking place.



Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.


Idea conceived

September 1, 2012

Idea posted

Sep 2013
challenge block
Can't find the Idea you are after?
Then 'Challenge Us' to source it.


For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.

Use our Ideas to:

  • Catalyse conversations with mentors, mentees, peers and colleagues.
  • Keep program participants engaged with leadership thinking when they return to their workplace.
  • Create a common language amongst your colleagues on leadership and management practice
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest thought-leadership from the world’s leading business schools.
  • Drill-down on the original research or even contact the researchers directly

Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization.