Who’s Looking Over Your Shoulder?

By on / Business Negotiations, Daily

Adapted from “Onlooker Alert!” First published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Unless your official title is “lawyer” or “agent,” you probably don’t think of yourself as an agent. But if you’ve ever represented a family member, your boss, your department, or your organization in a negotiation, you’ve served as that party’s agent.

Representing others at the bargaining table creates both opportunities and hazards. In particular, how should you respond if the person or people you represent want to be at the bargaining table with you?

You may be negotiating for others, but that doesn’t mean they should be looking over your shoulder. Negotiators often have trouble bargaining effectively in the presence of onlookers, according to researchers Karen Jehn and Lindred Greer of Leiden University in the Netherlands. The presence of an audience might make you excessively competitive or cause you to withhold information that could create value.

There’s also the danger that your principals could inadvertently sabotage talks if they interact directly with the other side. For this reason, real-estate agents typically forbid sellers to be present during a showing, lest they be tempted to disclose their bottom line to prospective buyers. Similarly, advertising executives usually exclude “creatives” from client meetings for fear they will give away too much.

As long as you promise to communicate regularly and honestly with your principal, she should be willing to trust you to negotiate without her personal involvement.

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