This article first appeared in Negotiation newsletter, published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School(www.pon.harvard.edu)
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 their book, "Negotiating on Behalf of Others" (Sage, 1999), professors Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School and Lawrence Susskind of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer guidance to negotiators who find themselves serving as agents.
As an agent, according to Mnookin and Susskind, you typically will be able to create value in negotiations under the following three conditions:
1. When you have specialized knowledge. Others may bring you in as their agent when you know more about the situation at hand than they do. For example, your organization might send you to negotiate a new software contract if you have more experience with the technology than anyone else in the office.
2. When time or distance works in your favor. You may find yourself negotiating on another party's behalf simply by virtue of the time you have available or your geographic proximity to the other side. A good friend who is planning a move to your town, for example, might ask you to look at apartments and talk to potential landlords before she arrives.
3. When you get along better with the other side. Often, people recruit agents as their stand-ins when they expect to clash with the party across the table. Suppose your boss dislikes a consultant with whom your organization regularly does business. If so, he might send you to negotiate the consultant's new contract.
These three guidelines, adapted from "Negotiating on Behalf of Others," will help you prepare to do your best when you serve as someone's agent:
1. Understand your role. Agents can take on a variety of roles in a negotiation and add value in different ways. You may serve as an informal go-between to your principal, transmitting messages from one side to the other, for example, or you may be more of an enforcer who promotes your principal's interests aggressively.
As in virtually any negotiation, one of your key responsibilities will be to expand the zone of possible agreement, or ZOPA, as much as you can. This means collaborating with the party across the table on reaching creative agreements -- specifically by listening carefully to identify her interests, asking lots of questions, and exploring different options.
Discuss your role and your negotiating stance with your principal in advance, and ask for as much information as you think you'll need to negotiate effectively on his behalf. To make your responsibilities crystal clear, work with your principal to prioritize a list of his interests. If you are negotiating on behalf of numerous constituents, meet with them one at a time to understand any overlapping or conflicting interests, advises Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse.
2. Align your interests. Agents often face a conflict of interest between what's best for them and what's best for their principal. If a company's buyer stands to gain the most financially from doing a quick deal, she might accept an unnecessarily high price from a seller, at her organization's expense. Such conflicts of interest often operate at a subconscious level, making them difficult for agents and other parties to recognize and address.
Wise agents take steps to motivate themselves to advocate single-mindedly for their principals' interests -- and to lessen their chances of acting unethically. How can you minimize your own conflicts of interest? Consider how various types of incentives might affect your motivation level. Incentives can include not only a fixed fee or a percentage of the outcome but also the promise of future assignments, a promotion, or publicity for your work. A salesperson might recognize that the promise of a promotion would benefit both her and her company more than a bonus would. Talk through the pros and cons of different incentives with your principal well in advance of the negotiation.
Even with such forethought, your interests will almost never be completely aligned with those of your principal. Keep this fact in mind when you negotiate, as it may help curb self-interested behavior.
3. Secure a strong mandate. Another crucial issue to discuss before talks begin is your mandate -- the degree of negotiating authority your principal gives you. In relatively minor negotiations, as in the case of an assistant charged with setting up a monthly departmental lunch with a vendor, a principal may give her agent permission to make commitments on her behalf.
More often, says Salacuse, a mandate takes the form of instructions about the types of deals you can explore at the table. At the outset of a negotiation, agents are likely to be most effective if they lack the authority to make binding commitments, according to professors Susskind and Mnookin. Lack of authority can free you up to invent options. At the same time, you should press for a broad mandate that will allow you to explore a wide range of alternatives at the table.
Why is it important to negotiate your mandate in advance? First, the other side will take you more seriously if they see you have the latitude to engage in creative problem solving. Second, your mandate will help you feel confident about persuading your principal to accept the deal you negotiate. Third, discussing your mandate can help to manage your principal's expectations when you know more about the negotiating conditions than she does.
Finally, be aware that a dissatisfied principal could revoke your mandate to negotiate at any time. Keep your principal informed of your progress throughout the process, consult her for advice and approval when necessary, and consider including other members of your organization on your negotiating team, advises Salacuse. These practices should improve the likelihood that you'll be able to negotiate a deal that you and your principal can celebrate together.