Career & Success

Why You Need an Agent to Sing Your Praises

Recent research shows having an agent or recruiter negotiate a deal for you makes you seem more likeable — and can get you a better deal.

August 01, 2006

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso

Modesty is still a virtue, even in the competitive world of business. Try talking about your own accomplishments in any setting, even in a job interview, and you’re more likely to be less liked. Speaking for yourself can hurt you, both personally and financially. So how do you assert your competence when you’re trying to capture that job, audience, or book contract? How do you overcome what social psychologists call the “self-promotion dilemma?”

“Get an agent or a recruiter,” says Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. In recent research, Pfeffer confirms what speakers, authors, and performers have intuited for decades — having someone else sing your praises can take the edge off in interpersonal negotiations where money, position, and status are at stake. Not only are you seen as more pleasant when flattering words on your behalf come out of a third party’s mouth, but you’re more likely to get a better salary or contract and get the people you’re negotiating with to be more helpful to you in the long term. The phenomenon holds even though people know you’ve paid your personal “cheerleader.”

“Most literature on the use of intermediaries focuses on the negative effects agents can have if they don’t represent your interests adequately because of conflicts with their own agendas, or by creating communication distortions,” says Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior. “What hasn’t been looked at much is the positive interpersonal effect an agent can have.”

Pfeffer designed three studies with several colleagues, including Christina Fong, PhD ‘03, now an assistant professor at the University of Washington business school, to determine just how an intermediary can help lessen the negative consequences of self-promotion. In the first study, university students were told they were helping to select a new director of student affairs and were asked to read over a transcript of an interview and evaluate the candidate. One group read a transcript in which a professional recruiter hired by the job applicant answered all the questions. The other group read the identical transcript, but with the applicant speaking for himself.

Students rated the applicant as more likeable and competent when he had an intermediary, and recommended a higher salary. Moreover, they expressed greater willingness to offer extra help to him should he get the job, such as alerting him to student concerns, helping him distribute student surveys, and working in his office on a project for no pay.

In a second study, participants were asked to imagine themselves in the role of senior editor for a book publisher in dealing with an experienced and successful author. They read excerpts from a negotiation for a sizeable book advance — again with an agent or the author himself speaking identical words. Participants once again rated the author more favorably on every dimension of likeability and were willing to offer extra assistance when the agent did the talking. “In this case, the willingness to offer extra help was due purely to the perception of the author’s greater likeability when he wasn’t promoting himself, because it was already established that the author was highly competent,” Pfeffer says.

In a third study, participants were similarly asked to imagine themselves as senior book editors but this time watched video clips of fictional presentations of information about the author. The same results held, even when the author appeared on camera with the agent. “This shows that even when it’s plainly in front of people’s faces that the author is complicit with the agent, they still discount the fact that the agent may be motivated to say what he does at least in part by money,” explains Pfeffer.

The research confirms that having a competent third party set up your initial presentation and, where possible, negotiate on your behalf can really pay off. “An agent or recruiter can say things that you could never say about yourself, and can shield you from interpersonal frictions,” Pfeffer says.

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