Hannah Riley Bowles and Bobbi Thomason
Jan. 29, 2021
When we ask professionals to describe a career negotiation, the first thing many people think of is bargaining with a hiring manager over an offer package. That scenario may spring to mind because compensation negotiations can be especially stressful and therefore become seared into our memories.
Although reaching agreement on pay and benefits is important, failure to think more broadly about your career could mean losing valuable opportunities for advancement. For instance, women are increasingly urged to negotiate for higher pay as a way to close the gender wage gap. However, studies have shown that women earning 80 cents on the dollar is explained more by differences in men’s and women’s career trajectories than by differential pay for doing the exact same job. Our research and our work coaching executives suggest that negotiating your role (your developmental opportunities) is likely to benefit your career more than negotiating your pay and benefits does.
As with other dealmaking, career negotiations should not be solely about getting as much as you can. The best negotiators generate mutually beneficial solutions through joint problem-solving and creative trade-offs. We advise professionals to think strategically about not just what they might negotiate but how. That means going beyond planning what to say at the bargaining table; it requires keeping your eye on larger objectives, ensuring that you are negotiating with the right parties over the right issues and preventing misunderstandings from derailing your requests or proposals because they are unconventional.
In the age of COVID-19, the time is ripe to improve your career negotiation skills. Many people are changing how they work (shifting to remote arrangements, for example), what they are working on (responding to new priorities) and with whom they’re working (collaborating in new ways across functions and geographies).
Drawing from a research project in which we collected thousands of stories from people about how they advanced at pivotal points in their careers, we propose four steps for preparing for your career negotiations.
START WITH YOUR CAREER GOALS
In our experience, negotiators too often start their preparation focused on the opportunity right in front of them, such as a job offer, rather than on their ultimate work and life aspirations. Anya’s story offers a cautionary tale. (“Anya” is a composite of case examples we studied.) When finishing her MBA program, she was evaluating two offers: one in consulting — the field she had previously worked in for several years — and one that would launch a new career in tech, which was what her heart truly desired. The consulting firm was offering her more money and status than the tech company was — unsurprising, given her limited experience in tech. Focused on the terms of the offers, Anya started her negotiation preparation wondering if she should walk away from the tech company unless it matched the salary offered by the consulting firm.
Making compensation the deciding factor can be a mistake. If we’d been coaching Anya, we would have encouraged her to start with her career goal: transitioning out of consulting into tech. We would have encouraged her to compare the competing offers not only with each other but also against her vision of what she wanted to achieve in her first five years out of graduate school. Next we might have asked, “To improve the tech offer, what might you negotiate to fulfill your dream of a career in tech?” Perhaps she could accept the lower compensation but negotiate for an accelerated promotion track — a solution that might appeal to the tech company because it would not need to deviate from its compensation standards for MBA recruits.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE NEGOTIATING FOR
Career negotiations fall into three buckets. In “asking” negotiations, you propose something that’s standard for someone in your role or at your level. In “bending” negotiations, you request a personal exception or an unusual arrangement that runs counter to typical organizational practice (for example, a promotion to a position for which you lack the conventional qualifications). And in “shaping” negotiations, you propose ways to play a role in changing your organizational environment or creating a new initiative. Depending on whether you are in an asking, a bending or a shaping negotiation, you will need to vary your arguments to win your counterparts’ support.
In asking situations, you must demonstrate that your request or proposal is reasonable because it fits with existing practices or norms — for example, you deserve a promotion or a developmental opportunity because other employees with your track record have received such rewards. If you are in a bending negotiation — seeking some special exception — justifying your request is particularly important.
Whereas asking and bending negotiations are focused solely on your personal career path, shaping negotiations center on proposals to change the path of your organization. Because that commonly means seizing leadership opportunities, shaping negotiations typically involve more parties and the backing of allies.
REDUCE AMBIGUITY ABOUT WHAT, HOW AND WITH WHOM TO NEGOTIATE
As you prepare to negotiate, write down all the questions you have: What is potentially negotiable? How should I negotiate? Who will be my counterparts, and what do they care about? There are many sources for this type of information. Talent professionals, for example, will explain in general terms what is typically negotiable and how. Some information is available online. A LinkedIn search can help you find professional contacts who may tell you more about a hiring manager.
ENHANCE YOUR NEGOTIATIONS THROUGH RELATIONSHIPS — AND VICE VERSA
As you aim to reduce ambiguity, you will undoubtedly think of people you might go to for information or advice. You might also think of others who would give honest feedback if you are off track. Don’t forget to identify potential advocates for your proposal. Who might be willing to speak up in favor of it? Connecting with people who can be helpful is what we mean by enhancing your negotiations through relationships.
To build a coalition of support, you might start off by trying something akin to the shuttle diplomacy used by negotiators of international affairs: Make the rounds of key stakeholders, talking with them individually to solicit their feedback and input. Shuttling enables you to privately explore people’s interests and concerns and to incorporate their ideas into your game plan. It also helps you predict how people will respond when it comes time for you to present a formal proposal.
The four steps outlined above take time to implement. Most of the career negotiations recounted to us by professionals lasted weeks or months. To maximize your odds of success, set targets for yourself that are specific and realistic — and that help hold you accountable to follow through with your plan.
Idea in Brief
In job negotiations, professionals too often focus on pay and benefits and fail to think more broadly about how the opportunity will fit into their long-term career goals.
THE WAY TO START
Work backward from your career objectives to define the next steps you want to take. Be mindful of whether you’re proposing something standard, an unusual arrangement for yourself or an idea that will change the organization.
Make sure you have all the necessary information and aren’t operating under false assumptions. Explain why your request is also in the other party’s interest. Seek input and feedback from people who could be helpful, and enlist allies to support your proposal.
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