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Negotiating Tips For Women In The Workplace

Negotiation is a skill that can take years to master, and for women it can be especially tricky, not because their ability is a factor but because their likability is a factor. For all the advice women have been given to step up, ask for the promotion, and make the case for a raise, many women have discovered that their reward for doing so is a reputation for being “pushy,” or “aggressive,” or “abrasive.”

As the Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard Kennedy School, and the CEO and founder of her own business consultancy, Barbara Annis knows a thing or two about scaling the professional ranks. And as a trusted counselor to high-flying female professionals around the globe, and a pioneer in the field of gender intelligence, she has particular insight into the challenges women face when they ask to be rewarded and promoted for their work.

Here, Annis shares tips and tactics to help women succeed in their negotiations and secure the advancement they deserve in their careers.

It’s Not An Even Playing Field

The negotiating table is often not an even playing field for women, so being aware of that, unfortunately, is part of being a savvy negotiator. Can you discuss?

Yes. You need to be self-aware; it’s not an even playing field but don’t go into a victim mindset about it. You just need to know how to navigate that playing field.

Think about how you frame up what you’re negotiating for, so that you’re not being judged for asking; always frame it as a win for them. We know that men tend to want to win and achieve, so if you frame what you’re asking for as being a win for them and for the company, then you can break through that judgement of, “She’s getting too big for her britches.”

Frame what you’re asking for as being a win for them and for the company, then you can break through that judgement of, “She’s getting too big for her britches.”

Negotiate As If You Are Your Own Best Client

Women can match or best men in negotiations where the dynamics are adjusted; for example, when they are negotiating for others. Can you talk about that?

Women outscore men when they negotiate for others; they are brilliant at it, but they score lower when they negotiate for themselves. So, it’s not that women don’t have the skill to be great negotiators, it’s just that they are not practicing it for themselves. So, when you negotiate for yourself, if you think of it as, “I am my own best client,” then that is very helpful framing because it makes it about using a skill that you already know that you have.

Regroup And Don’t Take It Personally

Sometimes a successful negotiation happens over time; you have to remake the case. Do women sometimes think they’ve “failed” because they’ve been dejected by the initial response?

Women tend to hear “no” as being final rather than an opportunity for renegotiation. I know a woman who is very, very skilled at hearing the ‘no,’ and going, “OK, great. Work with me on this one for five minutes.” She just looks at that “no” as an opportunity to find another way to negotiate, and she closes a lot of things that way. Never think of “no” as a rejection; it’s just a “no;” don’t add anything more to it than that. Use it to think about how you can reframe what you’re asking for and then approach it differently.

Never think of “no” as a rejection; it’s just a “no;” don’t add anything more to it than that.

The Power of First Person

There was a recent, much discussed case of a female academic having an offer rescinded after she tried to negotiate over email. What do you think of using email?

It’s not a good idea to negotiate over email. I would never do it. When you start making requests over email, it can land -- particularly if a woman does it -- as demanding. It can create a perception that you’re going to be a problem child. Why? Because emails lack context, and you can’t use all your skills as a communicator over email. If you do get an email offer, I would respond, “When do you have five minutes to discuss?” You can use email, however, to confirm details of what you’ve discussed so that you have it in writing.

It’s not a good idea to negotiate over email. I would never do it. When you start making requests over email, it can land -- particularly if a woman does it -- as demanding.

If You Start Negotiating At The Table You’re Already Behind

Because women face hidden social costs when it comes to asserting themselves, can having sponsors within the company highlight their achievements in advance help?

Absolutely. Actively networking for sponsors is something you should do before you even get to the table, and that’s because there’s nothing more powerful than walking into a room that’s been staged for you already; it changes the listening. So, women need to work on getting sponsors -- something which comes very naturally to men -- and they need to not talk themselves out of asking important people to sponsor then.

There’s nothing more powerful than walking into a room that’s been staged for you already; it changes the listening.

Don’t Assume They Know What You’ve Done

Women sometimes assume that because they’ve worked their tail off it’s been noticed and that the person they are negotiating with is aware. Can you talk about that?

Women spend a lot of time making their resume impeccable and ensuring it has 100% integrity. They really scrutinize how they say things; they think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly say that.” And that’s because women don’t look at it through an individualistic lens: “What I achieved,” they look through a team lens: “What ‘we’ achieved.” But because women spend so much time on their resume, they then assume that they don’t need to further demonstrate that they are high potential, when in fact they still do.

Emphasize The Team But Not At Your Own Expense

As far as using “we” instead of “I,” is there a fine line there so that you’re not giving your credit away?

I am much more comfortable speaking in “we” terms, so I have had to be surgical about making sure I use “I” a couple of times before I move to “we.” So, I lead with “I,” so that they see me as the CEO and as the leader, and then I’ll move to “we” after that. So, it’s about making sure you bring the balance in.

Know Your Worth

Women are better negotiators when they’re clear on their value in the marketplace. Can you talk about why it’s important then for them to network outside women’s groups so that they know how their male peers are compensated?

You create a silo or limitation for yourself if you only network with women. Cross-networking certainly gives you a much better understanding of the marketplace and helps you when you approach a negotiation. Women sometimes think that if they’re more self-effacing then they’ll be more liked and accepted; that’s part of our socialization. But you need to do your homework and really know your worth -- not only in terms of who you are today, but also the possibility of what you can contribute in the future. Then, in a negotiation, you want to link that worth to how it’s a win for the boss or for the company.

Don’t Overcompensate

Because women are so aware that there is a social hidden cost if they’re deemed too assertive in a negotiation, does overcompensating go on?

Yes, of course. I know of a woman running a company in Europe, and in her leadership assessment she was told that she was too direct and that she had sharp elbows -- she had actually been receiving coaching from a famous executive coach on how to speak powerfully. Over the last year, I’ve seen her overcompensate for that; she’s really trying to be liked, to the point that now they’re saying that she’s “high maintenance.” She’s caught in the middle. So, the thing is: be yourself. Don’t let your internal compass be influenced in either direction.

There was a book many years ago with a great title: “What People Think of Me is None of My Business.” It was written by a female counselor who saw how worried women were about being liked. Now, she wrote about it from the perspective of “get over it,” but really it’s about being self-actualized: work from your true values and from your results.

Mind Your Leverage

What about using an outside offer as leverage -- are women judged more harshly than their male counterparts when they do that?

This is really hard, because often when you try to use an outside offer to leverage something inside, it can land as very manipulative -- that actually goes for both men and women. So there is a risk factor here, and I would lead a conversation like this by expressing loyalty and commitment first. I would say something like, “I love working here and I don’t want to be enticed to leave, but I have had this offer and it would have a huge impact on my finances, so can we explore a change in salary?”

Practice Making The Case

Because women can find self-promotion a little unsavory, is it sometimes the case that they have simply not spent as much time perfecting the narrative of their strengths?

Self-promotion doesn’t come as naturally to women because we are so other orientated, and we find practicing the elevator pitch tiring because it feels so self-serving. But we have to do it, because if you put your credibility upfront, your audience is already thinking, “This person knows what they are talking about.” So, practice making the case -- it can take you just thirty seconds, it doesn’t have to be this long, drawn out thing. It will really empower your career and your ability to negotiate.

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