When You Should Be Skeptical of an Employee's Sob Story

Triggering sympathy can help workers win negotiations. Unfortunately, it doesn't work in reverse

Written by PROFIT Staff
Illustration: Kagan McLeod

Low-ranking employees can improve their position in negotiations by eliciting sympathy from superiors, a UC Berkeley study confirms. Sob stories trigger sympathy from bosses, tilting the outcome slightly and resulting in better deals for the less powerful players.

Bosses beware: It doesn’t work in reverse.

Employees on the low rung of the company hierarchy are more likely to get what they want if they pull the sympathy card in front of their bosses, according to research from the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business. The finding is the result of a study which saw 100 MBA students (30 were female) randomly assigned to negotiating teams to play out various scenarios. The researchers believe that hearing about the a person’s difficulty triggered sympathy in the student assigned to role-playing the boss.

“In the end,” the study concludes, “Both parties were more poised to work out an amicable agreement.” A word of caution, this tactic doesn’t work when the tables are turned. The participants noted that when managers vent it comes off as manipulative.


Do you agree with the study’s finding? Has one of your employees tried to win a negotiation through sympathy? What other tactics do people use to tilt a bargaining outcome? Let us know by commenting below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com