Three years ago, I had some friends over for a casual get together on a summer evening. There were introductions, the usual small talk, wine, and snacks. The conversation turned to work. Someone complained she was being underpaid but didn’t know what to do about it. Should she look for another job? A job hunt felt so daunting, like so much extra work, she said.
To this, another friend, a really smart and ambitious woman I looked up to, made a comment that lit a light bulb in my head.
She said it rather nonchalantly. She said one could always ask for more.
“If you’re good, there’s always room in the budget. You can always ask for more. But you gotta ask well.”
“Oh my god, that’s so true!” I probably yelled a bit too enthusiastically.
It was gratifying and enlightening to hear the truth about the working world — something they never teach you in school — uttered by another woman. The truth is everything is negotiable at work almost always: what you do, how you do it, when you do it, where you do it, and for how much. If you think there’s something else you can do, if it can be done better or faster, and especially if you think you’re being underpaid, then by all means, you should speak up and ask for what you want. And ask well, in a way that demonstrates your intelligence, professionalism and leadership potential.
I hadn’t thought of it this way until she said this.
It was a wakeup call to the naïve and self-sabotaging mentality of a “good girl” (or the Tiara Syndrome), thinking that if you do excellent work and keep your head and voice down, the powers that be would reward you accordingly like some benevolent God.
Let’s do a quick gut check: Are your employer/client endowed with all-encompassing omniscience and all-mighty omnipotence? Hmmm, didn’t think so. Unless your employer/client is a mind reader, they can’t actually read your mind, much less know all the great things you do to help the organization grow and save money. They won’t know what you want or need to succeed until you articulate it for them. Negotiation is not a painful chore to avoid, but an integral part of your career success.
You can and should ask for more.
Hearing this lit a light bulb in my head. Immediately I thought, how can I facilitate more eye-opening conversations like this one? I loved that my girlfriends and I were having a smart conversation about negotiation, rather than griping about our significant others or getting our nails done (although that can be fun, too). What if more women shared their negotiation stories and tips with each other like this? What if we helped one another get raises and promotions as much as we helped one another cope with boyfriend/girlfriend dramas? How could I help make that a reality?
I could get some of the most confident and impressive women I know in a room and host a conversation. Like a cocktail party, but bigger and with format – a panel event. The friend who made the comment also led a local Meetup group for women in media and technology, so I proposed collaboration. We extended the invitation to a community of career-oriented women for an open and frank conversation about success, money and negotiation.
The event was held later that fall at a small web design studio near Flatiron building in Manhattan. The compact event space was packed to the gills with about thirty young professional women (and a smattering of curious men), eager to develop their negotiation prowess. From my perch at the front of the room, I saw many sitting at the edges of their seats and listening with rapt attention as the panelists talked about how they asked for and got what they wanted – money, title, and in one case, a pearl-colored Audi convertible.
By the way, later this fall, I’ll be sharing some of the best frameworks and tactics for workplace negotiation at the Bullish Conference in Miami. But here I’d like to share top three takeaways from the panel event:
1. Don’t be a needy child at the bargaining table.
We discussed some great examples of how not to negotiate. One of the panelists, a partner at a boutique law firm in Manhattan, shared that one of the administrative staff had recently asked for a raise. But her latest performance reviews were less than stellar. She chewed gum and twirled her hair, as she up-talked:
“I think I could be making more money here…?”
She didn’t have a good rationale as to why she deserved a raise, and she didn’t get one.
Another panelist, a media executive, shared that one of her female reports asked for a raise in a way that didn’t help her cause. She highlighted that this employee was someone integral to the company’s operations, someone who contributed value. Yet when she came to ask for a raise, she didn’t make a case based on her value proposition. Instead, she groused saying she’d been working at the company for five years and she’s getting married and the wedding expenses are piling up…
Which brings me to the second key takeaway:
2. Show your employer/client how they will benefit from giving you what you want. Don’t make it about you but make it about them.
One recurring theme of that night was the importance of articulating one’s value. The panelists all agreed that the most compelling case for workplace negotiation is one framed around value. In other words, make your ask based on your awesome work, on how the company/client benefitted from your awesome work, and how your getting what you want will enable or incentivize you to make even more awesome possible.
Everyone has his or her reasons for wanting to make more money. Let’s set aside your ambition and drive for success for a moment and consider the stuff of life that incurs big bills, like getting married, having a baby, or a medical condition. For instance, this year I’m getting adult braces, which will cost thousands of dollars out of pocket. Extra income would definitely help cover the costs. But would I make a case for a raise at work based on the fact that I want to correct my open bite and alleviate chronic TMJ pain? Absolutely not, because my getting braces has little to do with the company’s goals and missions. While my boss may care about my orthodontic care at a personal level, I would need to negotiate based on the value I’ve delivered and additional value I’d like to offer. I would also come to the bargaining table prepared with suggestions on how I can make more awesome possible, properly dressed and poised, ready to talk business like a professional.
3. Mindset is key. Believe. Ask. Receive.
We explored many aspects of negotiation that night, and if I had to choose one, the main takeaway of the night would be that confidence is key. Confidence means believing in yourself, in the value you bring to the table, and acting with courage to risk rejection and ask anyways. In the words of Wayne Gretzky, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The more often you muster the courage to ask for what you want – or the more often you take the shot – the more likely you make a goal and get what you want. Said another way, confidence translates to resilience and persistence, which are essential to achieving negotiation success.
In the words of Aaliyah, “if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.”
Studies have shown that men initiate negotiation four times as often as women. One explanation for this is that men are more comfortable with negotiating, because they get a lot of practice asking people out on dates. Conversely, women in general prefer to be offered something than to make the ask and risk rejection. It’s high time we competent women buck this trend. When I was a senior in high school, I asked five boys to be my prom date and they all gently turned me down. I ended up going alone and had the best time of my life dancing the night away. It didn’t hurt to ask five times, and in the end, it didn’t matter that I went to the prom without a boy. This experience helped me see that I need not be afraid to ask for what I want and, even if I don’t get what I want, I can thrive.
At the end, the success of the first panel discussion gave me the confidence and motivation to follow up with a hands-on negotiation workshop, where women would have the chance to practice turning knowledge about negotiation into action.
Confidence comes from taking action. At the Bullish Conference this fall – which will be the tenth iteration of hands-on negotiation workshop since the first one on 2011 – I’ll be helping bullicorns practice asking for what we desire by leading confidence-building mock negotiation sessions. We’ll practice asking for more, because we can and should.
Whether I see you in Miami or online, I hope this helps with your future workplace negotiation. I wish you negotiation success!