Five Ways Women Can Negotiate More Effectively
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Careers Leadership Mar 1, 2018

Five Ways Women Can Nego­ti­ate More Effectively

How to advo­cate for your­self at crit­i­cal points in your career.

A woman negotiations at her job.

Lisa Röper

More and more women are speak­ing up for gen­der equal­i­ty at work — advo­cat­ing for equal oppor­tu­ni­ties and com­pen­sa­tion, as well as a work­place free of harass­ment. But while women are strong­ly and bold­ly ask­ing for what their teams and col­leagues need, many women are still reluc­tant to nego­ti­ate for themselves. 

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When nego­ti­a­tion con­texts are clear and unam­bigu­ous, recent research reveals few gen­der dif­fer­ences in the like­li­hood of ini­ti­at­ing a nego­ti­a­tion. For exam­ple, you would not expect men to be more like­ly than women to ini­ti­ate a nego­ti­a­tion for a cus­tomer con­tract or a sup­pli­er agree­ment. How­ev­er, when the appro­pri­ate­ness of nego­ti­at­ing is less clear — as is so often the case for nego­ti­at­ing pro­mo­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties, vis­i­bil­i­ty, and resources — gen­der dif­fer­ences do emerge. 

Often, women view key assign­ments and pro­mo­tions as a reward for doing a good job, so they wait to be reward­ed instead of nego­ti­at­ing with super­vi­sors for new oppor­tu­ni­ties. In con­trast, research has demon­strat­ed that men are com­fort­able seek­ing pro­mo­tion even if they only meet some of the require­ments of the new role. 

Women should active­ly advo­cate for them­selves and nego­ti­ate at crit­i­cal junc­tures in their careers: on their way in, by putting them­selves in the run­ning for new jobs and nego­ti­at­ing their com­pen­sa­tion pack­ages; on their way up, by tar­get­ing and seek­ing devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties, vis­i­ble assign­ments and pro­mo­tions; and even on their way out, by nego­ti­at­ing the terms of their exit from a com­pa­ny. Here are five strate­gies that can help women nego­ti­ate effec­tive­ly across their career. 

Be Pre­pared

Suc­cess­ful nego­ti­a­tions start with prepa­ra­tion. This means that if you find your­self caught off guard by a con­ver­sa­tion, buy­ing time is a good strat­e­gy. If you are in the hall­way when your boss stops to talk about a new role with­in the com­pa­ny — or if you are unex­pect­ed­ly demot­ed — request­ing time to regroup allows you to approach the dis­cus­sion know­ing what you want and how you will ask for it. 

You need time to pre­pare in order to ensure that the right issues are put on the table. Con­sid­er ahead of time how your dif­fer­en­tia­tors can help to address the employer’s press­ing busi­ness needs. It is crit­i­cal in employ­ment nego­ti­a­tions to high­light how you are unique in some way so that the com­pa­ny can do some­thing for you with­out estab­lish­ing a prece­dent that requires them to do the same for every­one else. Avoid any dis­cus­sion that only focus­es on salary since this sin­gle-issue con­ver­sa­tion is like­ly to dam­age the relationship. 

Prepa­ra­tion is also use­ful when ini­ti­at­ing dis­cus­sions about your future. If you are seek­ing a pro­mo­tion or a stretch assign­ment, be ready to clear­ly artic­u­late the val­ue you can con­tribute. Prepa­ra­tion also builds con­fi­dence and helps to counter the inner crit­ic” that fre­quent­ly con­vinces women they are not ready. Even if this leg­work does not land you the oppor­tu­ni­ty you want, pre­sent­ing a strong case for why you should be con­sid­ered may prompt your boss to pro­vide men­tor­ing or fur­ther devel­op­ment that leads to anoth­er opportunity. 

Focus on the Oth­er Side’s Needs 

Always frame your offer­ing in terms of what the employ­er needs. Take, for exam­ple, a female exec­u­tive who was offered the role of CEO at a com­pa­ny based in anoth­er state. The one-year con­tract the board offered her was not accept­able giv­en the impact a move would have on her spouse and her school-aged chil­dren. So she framed her request around the company’s needs: she pre­sent­ed a five-year turn­around plan, lay­ing out what it would take to hit year­ly tar­gets and request­ed a five-year con­tract to go with it. The board agreed. The exec­u­tive advanced the company’s agen­da, and she got what she needed. 

When you can lead the dis­cus­sion, you want to lead; you will gain an advan­tage by cre­at­ing the start­ing point, putting the right issues on the table, and being the one who frames the rationale.

What hap­pens when you are leav­ing an orga­ni­za­tion instead of arriv­ing? It may seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive to think about the employer’s needs when you are being let go, but it can be fruit­ful. I am aware of a senior leader who learned she was being ter­mi­nat­ed. After tak­ing a moment to regroup, she focused on the company’s need to man­age the pos­si­ble reper­cus­sions of her exit: com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the firm’s clients, tran­si­tion plans for the teams, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the inter­nal team to ensure employ­ees did not fol­low her out the door. By mak­ing the case that she was unique­ly posi­tioned to help the com­pa­ny, she bought her­self room to nego­ti­ate an exit that took into account the company’s pri­or­i­ties and her own needs. 

Lead the Discussion 

A large body of research has demon­strat­ed that peo­ple who make the first offer get bet­ter out­comes. In job nego­ti­a­tions, peo­ple often defer because they think that the com­pa­ny may offer more than they would request. More like­ly, though, wait­ing leads to dis­ap­point­ment with what the com­pa­ny offered. 

Grant­ed, tak­ing the lead can be dif­fi­cult because you should not begin to nego­ti­ate until you have actu­al­ly been offered the job. Addi­tion­al­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly ear­ly in your career, the offer of employ­ment and the terms of the offer are often con­found­ed. In these sit­u­a­tions, you can­not go first. How­ev­er, as you become more senior, an employ­er may say that they are inter­est­ed in hir­ing you and want to dis­cuss what it will take. In this case, you would absolute­ly want to speak first. You would also want to lead in a nego­ti­a­tion with your cur­rent employ­er over a pro­mo­tion or new assign­ment, as your exist­ing role gives you more influence. 

In oth­er words, when you can lead, you want to lead; you will gain an advan­tage by cre­at­ing the start­ing point, putting the right issues on the table, and being the one who frames the ratio­nale. More­over, when you lead, you are in the rela­tion­ship-enhanc­ing posi­tion, where­as when you fol­low, you are in the rela­tion­ship-dam­ag­ing posi­tion, need­ing to reject or cri­tique the employer’s ini­tial offer. 

How does lead­ing the dis­cus­sion look in prac­tice? Say, for exam­ple, you are being con­sid­ered to lead a major ini­tia­tive at your com­pa­ny. You know that this ini­tia­tive will require a strong leader who can estab­lish inter­nal and exter­nal sup­port from many con­stituents. Know­ing how impor­tant it will be for the leader to get buy-in through­out the orga­ni­za­tion, you make the case that in order to have enough cred­i­bil­i­ty, it is essen­tial for you to have a vice pres­i­dent title. You also include in your nego­ti­a­tion a dis­cus­sion of the time­line for the project, key suc­cess met­rics, and a salary con­sis­tent with the vice pres­i­dent role. 

Leave Room to Concede 

Many peo­ple, espe­cial­ly women, men­tal­ly nego­ti­ate down” their own demands based on what they think the employ­er will accept before they even enter the nego­ti­a­tion. How­ev­er, ask­ing for more puts you in a stronger posi­tion from the outset. 

Go into the nego­ti­a­tion with a cred­i­ble plan — remem­ber, your rep­u­ta­tion is at stake. But be ready to con­cede in the process. Design your plan with room to make cer­tain con­ces­sions, and devel­op a ratio­nale for these concessions. 

Say you need a full-time, ded­i­cat­ed sup­port per­son on your staff. Know­ing that the com­pa­ny has a hir­ing freeze, you may be tempt­ed to ask for just a part-time posi­tion. A bet­ter approach might be to request two staff posi­tions — one to work direct­ly with you and one to sup­port the team — with room to con­cede” down to one full-time person. 

You need to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­cede, so be cer­tain to nego­ti­ate either face to face or on the tele­phone. You should nev­er nego­ti­ate for your­self via email, text, or a voice­mail message. 

Offer Alter­na­tives

Com­ing to the table with three offers rather than one can help you to get what you want. These mul­ti­ple equiv­a­lent simul­ta­ne­ous offers” (MESOs) help facil­i­tate agree­ment. If you are arrang­ing a meet­ing, would you offer just one day and time? Of course not. 

In nego­ti­at­ing employ­ment issues, MESOs change the con­ver­sa­tion from are we going to work togeth­er?” to how can we work togeth­er?” Pro­vide three pack­ages, vary­ing the issues that address the employer’s inter­ests but are easy for you to pro­vide, such as the strate­gic ini­tia­tives you will focus on, the time­line for doing this, and the met­rics that will be used to define suc­cess. salary. Roles, respon­si­bil­i­ties, expo­sure, flex­i­bil­i­ty, and the kinds of cus­tomers one works with might also be on the table. Offer­ing alter­na­tives show­cas­es your abil­i­ty to col­lab­o­rate and your will­ing­ness to find solu­tions that ben­e­fit the com­pa­ny — and help you. Just as impor­tant­ly, it can also con­vey infor­ma­tion about how you specif­i­cal­ly are best equipped to address the company’s press­ing needs. 

For exam­ple, in the sce­nario above where you are propos­ing a vice pres­i­dent role for your­self, you might vary the time­line for the ini­tia­tive, the plan for inter­nal and exter­nal engage­ment, and the suc­cess met­rics across the three offers. You might hold con­stant the vice pres­i­dent title, and in two of the options include the salary con­sis­tent with this role. In the third option, though, you might include a base salary that is slight­ly low­er — but also a very sig­nif­i­cant bonus tied to achiev­ing the suc­cess met­rics. These three options will pro­mote a dis­cus­sion about the best way to car­ry out the ini­tia­tive and what suc­cess will look like; they will also high­light your con­fi­dence that you can do this job well if you are a vice pres­i­dent. This is like­ly to be a far more pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tion than one focused on your salary and your desire to be a vice president. 

Nego­ti­at­ing for your­self does not mean that you should focus on your­self — in fact, by focus­ing on the oth­er side’s needs and the company’s pri­or­i­ties, you are far more like­ly to achieve the out­comes you desire. 

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Victoria Medvec

Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management & Organizations

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