Because an agent’s incentives are rarely, if ever, perfectly aligned with those of her principal, many business negotiators have been burned by agents who put their own interests first. Agents in many fields, for example, have a motivation to close deals quickly—rather than for the best price—and earn quick commissions. Agents also sometimes face financial or career incentives to play nice when more assertive tactics would be helpful (in the hope of working for the other side, for example) or to focus on price and neglect other issues.
That’s why, in dealmaking and other forms of negotiation, a trustworthy agent can be worth his or her weight in gold. Such agents reap mutual gains from negotiation, rather than sacrificing their principal’s needs for their own.
There’s a risk, however, that an agent’s loyalty can actually lead both him and his principal astray, particularly when ethical and legal issues are at stake.
Take the case of National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell. Reports Kevin Clark in the Wall Street Journal, Goodell earned the loyalty of those he represents in negotiations and to the public—the league’s owners—by supporting their positions faithfully, even when those positions place him in the role of the “heavy.” For example, he has taken heat for pushing for public funding for new football stadiums and for arguing that the Washington Redskins’ controversial team name should stand.
“Goodell’s greatest play in his eight years as commissioner has been to protect the owners in every situation,” writes Clark. In fact, Goodell has “done something significant” for every owner in the NFL, according to Clark.
On September 8, a video was released on the Internet that appeared to show Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice beating his then-fiancée in February. Goodell was widely condemned for having initially given Rice a weak penalty—a two-game suspension—and for his claims that, contrary to accusations reported by the Associated Press, no one at the league had seen the tape before it appeared on the Internet.
Many observers called for Goodell to be fired, but the owners remained united in their support of him. That continued support points to the risk of putting too much trust in one’s agent due to his or her past loyal behavior.
When working with your agent, be aware of the possibility that a close and trusting relationship could cloud your judgment. Though loyalty is a virtue in the business world, it is important to investigate credible charges and questionable behavior that could harm your reputation. The NFL should be doing just that in the case of Goodell and his staff.
For those serving as agents, there’s another lesson: beware of the temptation to blindly follow your principal down the wrong path. In our efforts to support those we represent, we face the danger of defending unethical and even criminal behavior. Ultimately, your own moral compass must be your guide.