How to Negotiate Your Way to a Better Career

5 tips for getting what you want at work

By Christina Folz Jun 20, 2017
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​Deborah Kolb, Ph.D.

​HR leaders get plenty of practice negotiating: They are key participants in discussions about wages, benefits, job offers, labor contracts and restructuring.

But brokering deals on their own behalf—such as asking for a raise, promotion or flexible work arrangement—can feel a lot more difficult. Unlike when you're serving as an "agent" for your organization, this form of bargaining requires having the confidence to advocate for yourself and to proceed without a clear road map.

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"It's hard to get these negotiations started [because] there is no structure for it like there is when you negotiate as an agent," said Deborah Kolb, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons School of Management and coauthor of Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains (Jossey-Bass, 2015).

You can start by getting clear on your own objectives. "You can't get what you want if you don't know what you want," said Kolb, who spoke at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition. Then follow these other career-bolstering negotiating tips:

Don't ask for anything less than what you want.
"[One] way we bargain ourselves down is we make the first concession in our head," she said. Rather, aspire high in what you ask for, and you'll be more likely to get it. "Don't negotiate with yourself. Let them say no."

Know your leverage and find ways to make your value visible. "How do people know what you're accomplishing?" she asked. It's particularly important to highlight your value if you're negotiating to be rewarded or recognized for so-called "invisible work" you took on without any formal acknowledgement.

An obvious way to make your value visible in that scenario is to simply stop doing the extra work—although that can come across as hostile. Or initiate discussion with questions such as "What would happen if I weren't able to do this?"

Realize that negotiation isn't a simple yes or no. Kolb learned this lesson when a former boss offered her a position she didn't think she wanted. When she declined the job, he followed up by asking her what it would take for her to reconsider—a response that surprised her.  

"I had always thought of it as yes or no," she said. Instead, she recommended, think about "what is your 'yes, and …'?" When you do that, an array of new options will present themselves. In reconsidering her position, she negotiated for the hiring of an associate director who took on the tasks that didn't appeal to her in the initial job offer.

"Stay with it—no may be just the beginning."

Appreciate the other party's perspective. It's tempting in a negotiation to view yourself as flexible and reasonable, while painting the other party as rigid and opportunistic. "We are all the heroes and heroines of our own stories," she said. But in reality, the other party's motivations in holding to their position are likely as sound as your own—and it is critical to grasp their point of view.

"What's really important is that you understand people's good reasons for saying no to you," Kolb said. "It's the hidden agenda of any negotiation."

She shared the story of a senior leader named Cheryl who wanted to negotiate for a "dual office" arrangement so she could live with her family in Pennsylvania while traveling frequently to her company's new location in Texas. Cheryl anticipated the main reasons her boss could turn down her appeal—that she might not be able to get her work done effectively and that the new role might establish an unwelcome precedent—and she addressed them in her pitch. For example, she incorporated performance measures into her proposal and suggested criteria to clarify how her boss might handle similar requests in the future.   

Expect resistance. "When people don't want to give you what you're asking for, they will say things that will put you on the defensive," Kolb said. "Expect it." Some frequent examples include telling you you're not ready for the job you want, saying your idea isn't valid, or appealing for your sympathy by stressing how much you're needed in the role you already have.

When this happens, use what Kolb calls "turns"—responses that help reframe the conversation to focus on your request. "Interrupt, correct, divert, question, use role reversal," she said. She suggested the following possible responses to the resistance you encounter:

  • "It might seem like I'm not ready, but let me show you an example of what I did."
  • "Help me understand the criteria you use to determine when someone is ready."
  • "What would be a reasonable idea to you?"
  • "What really concerns you?"
  • "If you were in my shoes, what would you do?"

While having these discussions may seem daunting and perhaps even lonely, realize that negotiating for yourself ultimately benefits others as well, Kolb said. In the case of Cheryl, for example, the senior leader who successfully negotiated for a more flexible dual office work arrangement, "it is no longer the condition that people in senior roles [at her company] have to consider relocating," Kolb said.

"It lays the path for people who come after." And that is how small wins become big gains. 


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