Integrative Bargaining Essay

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Integrative bargaining can best be analyzed by comparing  it with distributive  bargaining,  as illustrated by Richard  Walton  and  Bob McKersie’s pioneering study.  These  two  approaches  differ fundamentally: for example, defining the  parameters  of what  is at stake, the range of possible outcomes,  and the indices of a successful outcome.  Distributive bargaining is conducted  on the basis of win or lose: What  one side wins, the other side loses. It is an essentially competitive and adversarial process; and it presupposes a zero-sum game or a fixed-size “pie” that implies limits on what is available for distribution.  Successful bargaining, in this type of process, means obtaining  as much as possible of the contested “pie” at the expense of “the other side.” Given that the priority in this bargaining process is the win/lose dynamic, the parties generally show little concern  for the quality of their relationship with each other.

Much of the bargaining conducted  in commercial or industrial relations contexts could be characterized as the distributive  type. For example, if a buyer can successfully negotiate a lower price than that sought by the vendor, then such an outcome might be at the expense of some of the vendor’s profit. Similarly, in pay negotiations,  there  is usually a conflict between the views of the respective parties as to the share of revenue to be made available for employees’ pay relative to employer’s profits. In pay negotiations,  management typically frames what is at stake as a fixed size “pie.”

By contrast,  integrative  bargaining  is a cooperative approach that emphasizes the quality of the relationship  between the parties as well as the substantive matters at stake. It is founded on the assumption that  constructive  negotiations  can enlarge the “pie” by means of such strategies as, for example, identifying areas of common  interest. Integrative bargaining is not an approach  based on conceding easily to the other side; but it can generate agreements where each party simultaneously considers that it has won something that satisfies some significant interest(s).

For  instance,  if  a  buyer  can  negotiate  a  lower price per unit, this might be a worthwhile  trade-off for the vendor if it is in exchange for the buyer committing  to a larger purchase  or a longer term: both parties  thereby  will enjoy increased  benefits. Similarly, although distributive bargaining may dominate approaches  to negotiating pay, managers and unions can still adopt more integrative, or mutual-gains bargaining approaches  when  negotiating  on  other  relevant employment  matters  (e.g., occupational  health and safety, work organization,  training,  and professional development).

Although the distinction  between distributive and integrative bargaining was developed in the context of industrial relations, it is also applicable in many other contexts: for instance,  political negotiations  at both national and international levels. One objective of the proponents of the establishment of what later became the European Union (EU) in the post–World War II period  was the prevention  of further  wars between historically hostile  European  states  by means  of an integration  of those  states  within  a unifying supranational structure.  Subsequent bargaining to develop an expanded  EU was predicated  on an assumption that  this could enlarge the European  “pie” to make the EU economy greater than the sum of its national parts. Hence, bargaining about such substantial matters could be seen, in integrative terms, as attempts to achieve win-win outcomes for the respective parties.

Power, or the perception  of relative power, is fundamental to bargaining processes and outcomes. This is particularly so for those who try to move from distributive  to integrative  bargaining. Most bargaining processes involve parties or “reframing” contentious questions to try to influence the perceptions and attitudes of the other party to generate opportunities for achieving consensus.


  1. J. Bamber and P. Sheldon, Collective Bargaining: An International  Analysis, Comparative  Labour Law and Industrial Relations in Industrialized Market Economies, 9th ed., R. Blanpain, ed. (Kluwer Law, 2007);
  2. C. Katz, T. A. Kochan, and A. J. S. Colvin, An Introduction to Collective Bargaining and Industrial Relations, 4th. ed. (McGraw-Hill/Irwin,   2007);
  3. A. Kochan  and  D. B. Lipsky, Negotiations and Change: From the Workplace to Society (Cornell University Press, 2003);
  4. J. Lewicki, D. M. Saunders, and B. Barry, Negotiation, 5th ed. (McGrawHill/Irwin, 2005);
  5. Lynn M. Wagner, “Problem-Solving and Bargaining in International Negotiations,” International Negotiation Series (v.5, 2008);
  6. E. Walton, J. E. CuthcherGershenfeld, and R. B. McKersie, Strategic Negotiations: A Theory of Change in Labor-Management Relations (Cornell University Press, 2000);
  7. E. Walton and R. B. McKersie, A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations, 2nd ed. (McGraw Hill, 1991).

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