Etiquette matters in the business world. In spite of the frequent media portrayals of business executives as aggressive boors, in the real world most successful senior leaders are meticulously polite and even formal.  For example, I have received numerous hand-written notes from business leaders, even though this practice is fairly rare in my non-business social circle.  My business colleagues typically shake hands at the beginning and end of a meeting and are careful to introduce people who don’t know each other.

Saying thank you is pretty much the bare minimum for showing courtesy, and is an important part of making and maintaining excellent business relationships. But there are some situations when saying thank you is counter-productive.

According to the Harvard Business Review, it’s unwise to offer thanks when you’re in the middle of business negotiations. For example, let’s say you’re negotiating your salary for a new job:

  1. The employer offers you $250,000.
  2. You respond by thanking the employer, then making your counter-offer: $275,000 plus a bonus.
  3. The employer comes back with an offer of $260,000 — no bonus.
  4. And so it goes until you either reach an agreement, or you don’t.

Here’s the rub. The new research cited in the HBR piece argues that you made a mistake in step two. People who express thanks for an initial offer get lower second offers than people who respond neutrally. And while it may feel uncomfortable to act coolly, the research goes on to show that in a variety of competitive situations, expressing gratitude during the negotiation has a negative effect on the subsequent offer. As the HBR article says, “It’s fine to feel grateful if your counterpart makes a concession … but you should save any actual thank-yous until a signed agreement is in hand.”

I’ve seen this rule apply to a broad array of negotiation situations. Still, when I send a proposal to a prospective client, I usually thank him/her for the opportunity to bid on the project. To test this research, I’m going to experiment with leaving that out of my cover letter and see if that impacts the outcome of the negotiations.

Having said that, I am still confident that expressing gratitude is the best practice in most business encounters. And if in doubt, I’m going to continue saying thank you.

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