The Authority Problem

By Sandra Vasher

Do you have the final say in any deal you negotiate?

Is that signature yours? Or someone else’s?

If you said yes immediately, think twice before you confirm that. Is there anyone you are accountable to? Anyone at all? Do you have the absolute authority to do whatever you want?

If you said no, then you are not alone. Most negotiators do not have the absolute-end-of-the-line-the-buck-stops-here authority to sign a deal. That means that for the most part, we are all accountable to someone else when we are negotiating.

Which…leads us to a problem. If you are accountable to someone else, or if you are negotiating on someone else’s behalf, and you have to go back and get their signature before a deal is done, how do you handle that with the other side during the negotiation? Do you tell them it’s your boss whose signature they really need? Do you say things like, “Gosh, I’d really like to agree to that, but there’s no way Sandy will agree to it, and she’s the one who has to sign off on this?” Or do you ignore that pesky little detail until the very end of the deal, or maybe never bring it up at all?

I recall a business trip I took once on behalf of my boss for the purpose of developing relationships with some potential strategic partners overseas. I was authorized to gather as much information as possible, but I did not have the authority to give much information or agree to any numbers. I had three conversations with potential strategic partners, and each time they started out optimistic. I would tell them about the company I was with and what we did, they would tell me the same about themselves, and it would seem as though there might be some real potential for us to work together. Then we would start getting into issues like possible referral fees or timelines, and as we danced closer to talking about real numbers, I started looking like I was playing “coy.” In one case, the other person said something like, “So, what are you authorized to do here?” and I was forced to admit that he would have to talk to my boss to finalize anything. Talk about a way to shut down a meeting. How embarrassing!

The thing is: no one likes negotiating with the middleman, especially when they perceive the negotiation as important to the final deal. Think about it. What do you do when you’re on a customer service line and you get frustrated with what the first person you talk to is telling you? You ask for your call to be elevated to someone who can help you! How do you feel when you’re at a car dealership, and an associate brings over his or her manager to talk to you? You feel like you’ve finally been turned over to someone who can make you a deal.

When you negotiate, it’s important to be perceived as more than merely the middleman. But in reality, a negotiator’s actual authority to sign a deal isn’t usually the reason they end up being seen as the middleman. It’s not about actual authority; it’s about how you play your role and show the other person that you have influence.

When you negotiate on someone else’s behalf, there are two ways you can act: like a gopher or like an agent.

You shouldn’t resemble this in a negotiation.

A gopher goes out, gathers information, does menial tasks, and returns back to the boss without having made any real progress. The boss has to finish the job.

If the person you’re negotiating with hears you saying things like, “That’s not my responsibility,” “I don’t know,” or “I’ll have to take that back and ask” too often, you’re going to sound like a gopher. And as a gopher, you will be perceived as an obstacle at best and a waste of time at worst. You do not want to be the gopher.

The better choice is to act like an agent. An agent is a trusted representative of the boss. The agent goes out with information, asks smart questions, persuades, influences, and returns back to the boss with a deal she thinks the boss is likely to accept. The boss sends the agent to do work that she doesn’t have time to do herself.

If the person you’re negotiating with hears you saying things like, “That’s not something we can agree to, but here’s another choice,” “I can talk to the boss about that; I believe if she understands X, Y, and Z, she’ll agree to accept these terms,” and “Here’s what I can tell you…” you’re going to sound like an agent. As an agent, you will be perceived as someone the boss trusts and believes in, and the person you’re negotiating with will want to get on your good side, because he or she will see you as someone who can help them win over the boss.

There are going to be a lot of situations you face where you can’t be the person who signs the final deal. Your job in those situations is to know enough going in to show that you have influence and you aren’t someone your counterpart should try to pass to get on to the “real” negotiator.

Bottom line? Even if your authority is limited, be an agent, not a gopher!

Vasher McRoberts LLC

Written by

We advise, train, and support negotiators. Our principals have assisted Fortune 50 companies, NGOs, diplomats, military special forces, and more.

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