Agent Misbehavior Face-to-Face and Online

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Title: The Dark Side of Rapport: Agent Misbehavior Face-to-Face and Online

Authors: Sandy Jap, the Goizueta Term Chair and Professor of Marketing at the Goizueta Business School, Diane C. Robertson (Wharton) and Ryan Hamilton, Assistant Professor of Marketing (Goizueta)

Journal: Management Science (2011)


Over the past few decades, negotiation theorists have broadly endorsed rapport as a key ingredient to resolving disagreements at the bargaining table. When negotiating pairs are congenial and refrain from threats and ultimatums, they are more likely to develop the trust and cooperative spirit needed for mutually-beneficial resolutions, researchers have shown.

But are there situations when good rapport can lead to unethical behavior as negotiators shy away from delivering bad news that could threaten the bargaining relationship? It’s a question explored in a recently published paper from Sandy Jap and Ryan Hamilton at the Goizueta Business School and a colleague at the Wharton School. Through a series of experiments that simulated negotiations in impasse situations, the researchers found that higher levels of rapport led to more instances of unethical behavior as negotiators either misled one another or lost sight of their employers’ interests.

The researchers describe the phenomenon as “the dark side of rapport.”

To study the rapport effect, researchers designed three experiments in which study participants were asked to engage in a hypothetical real estate negotiation that’s designed to lead to an impasse. In other words, the only way for negotiators to bridge this impasse is through unethical behavior.

“A successful resolution is an indication that either the buyer was less than truthful, the buyer’s agent or the seller’s agent compromised the desires of the client, or both,” the researchers wrote.  Study participants were assigned to negotiating pairs, with one person taking the role of a buyer agent and the other that of a seller agent. The seller agent represents a hypothetical firm that wants to sell a group of historic row houses. But the seller will only make a deal if the properties are developed for residential and non-commercial use. The hypothetical buyer, meanwhile, is a corporation that wants to develop the property for a luxury hotel. This buyer demands that its negotiating agent not reveal the intent because any public notice would complicate a necessary rezoning process, in turn making the development more expensive.

Fifty-four executive MBA students in a class on negotiations acted out the parts during an in-class exercise. Fourteen of the negotiating pairs were assigned to a “high rapport” condition, meaning they negotiated face-to-face. The other 13 pairs conducted their negotiation through a computer instant messaging system, a condition that researchers deemed as “low rapport.” Interactions during the one-hour negotiation were captured by computer or audiotape and later analyzed along with the outcomes of the negotiations. The researchers found that when negotiators dealt with one another face-to-face, they struck a deal 84.6 percent of the time. When participants negotiated by way of instant messaging, the proportion of successful deals dropped to 42.9 percent. Analysis of the negotiation transcripts revealed 287 instances of misbehavior; face-to-face negotiators were more likely to have used ethically questionable tactics.

Face-to-face negotiations require more cognitive resources, so researchers designed a second experiment that used the same real estate case but asked all study participants to negotiate by way of computers. Some in this second experiment were told to simply start negotiating while other negotiating pairs were encouraged to first get to know one another. The results showed that, once again, those who established rapport were more likely to also strike a deal. A third experiment suggested that the dark side of rapport could be inhibited by simply reminding negotiators that their behavior in reaching a deal could have a long-term impact on their reputation. Researchers noted the general trend of conducting more negotiations through technological means also could tame this dark side, since the study suggests it’s difficult to establish rapport in computer-mediated environments.

“Although we acknowledge that rapport offers many advantages, the research presented in this paper suggests that when there is a high degree of conflict in the core values held by the negotiating partners, rapport has a dark side,” the researchers concluded. “Our findings caution that high rapport in situations of impasse may in fact create a slippery slope for misbehavior. Thus, it appears that the social pressures that arise from rapport make it difficult for agents to make better or rational decisions – i.e., to walk away upholding their client’s desires without incurring negative ethical and economic consequences.”

– Chris Snowbeck

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