Overcome Your Reluctance and Start Negotiating Your Salary

BY Judith White – HARVARD BUSINESS REPORT

Negotiating your salary can reap huge, long-term benefits, and negotiating deals with internal and external partners can create value and advance your career. So what’s stopping you from doing it? Throughout my 15 years of teaching and coaching negotiations, I hear the same three excuses over and over: “What if they get upset with me for asking?” “What if they say no?” and ”It’s not like me to ask.” In this post I’ll describe why we make these excuses and tell you how to overcome them.

First, prepare. Check that your reluctance isn’t simply due to a lack of preparation. If you’ve read a book on negotiation, taken a course, or paid close attention to a good negotiator, you know that the secret to having the conversation go the way you’d like is preparation. Let’s assume you’ve prepared but you’re still putting off the conversation. Which of the following excuses sounds familiar?

Excuse #1: “What if they get upset with me for asking?”
Fear of backlash is a genuine concern that negotiating will undermine the trust and rapport you have with the other party, consequently damaging the relationship. Why would someone get upset with you because you ask for something? Here’s why: They’re not comfortable having to respond to your request, and they blame you for putting them in a situation where they feel uncomfortable. From their perspective, you’ve put them on the spot; they have to say yes or no, and either way they will lose face.

The good news is that there are ways you can head off potential backlash, which usually comes from the other person’s expectations being violated, making the person feel uncomfortable. The solution is to reset their expectations and mitigate their discomfort. To avoid backlash, you need to invest extra effort in how you ask. Let them know in advance you wish to negotiate, and help them understand what to expect from the conversation. In other words, give them a chance to prepare. Then meet in person, if possible.

I recommend you begin by stating your honest intention regarding the continuation of the relationship. Then say that you have a concern. Ask permission to continue, and if they acquiesce, state your concern honestly and directly. Ask if they have any concerns related to this issue. Propose a solution. You may then ask them for a counterproposal. If you reach some kind of agreement, sum up your understanding of what’s been agreed upon. Encourage them to come back to you directly if they have any questions or concerns about what you’ve just agreed on. Follow up in writing “for their records” and include a thank you.

If you’re still worried, there are some extra things you can do to avoid backlash. Harvard professor Hannah Riley Bowles suggests using “we” instead of “I” in order to sound more communal. University of Texas professor Emily Amanatullah suggests acting as if you and the other person are on the same side of the table and trying to satisfy a third party — your team, your boss, your parents, or your spouse — whose interests you represent. These strategies are recommended specifically for women, but they work for men as well.

Excuse #2: “What if they say no?”
Fear of being turned down stems from a natural concern that you’ll feel ashamed and upset if your proposal is rejected. My colleagues and I have found that feeling this way is most likely when your proposal is personal — when what you ask for reflects your personal value or worth. Fear of losing face is a powerful motivator for avoiding a negotiation. In fact, the more you believe you deserve what you ask for, the more you risk losing face if your request is denied.

To overcome this fear, try to reframe the negotiation. Stop thinking of how bad you’ll feel if you hear “no.” Think instead about how good you’ll feel when you’ve initiated the conversation. Then you’ll be saving face if you have the conversation and losing face if you continue to avoid it. In Knowing Your Value, Mika Brzezinski shares her journey of reframing her salary negotiation. Remember, your self-worth does not depend on what they say; it depends on what you say and how you present yourself.

Excuse #3: “It’s not like me to ask.”
When we behave in a manner that’s inconsistent with how we see ourselves — even if those self-views are negative — we feel bad. This means that your belief that you don’t negotiate is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t see yourself negotiating, you probably won’t.

Overcoming this excuse is tricky. If you force yourself to negotiate when you feel that doing so is unlike you, chances are you will negotiate badly. In my experience, people who don’t see themselves as negotiators have a narrow mental picture of what a negotiator is, and don’t see much overlap between that picture and who they believe themselves to be. Their mental picture is almost always of someone who is aggressive, coercive, and focused on “winning” the negotiation. (Think William Shatner’s Priceline commercials). If this is your mental picture and you don’t see yourself in it, here’s what you should do: Throw it out. Get rid of it. Replace it with the image of a person you can view as a negotiation role model. Envision someone successful, whom you look up to, who handles conflict and difficult conversations about money and power with finesse. Your new mental image of a negotiator should be someone you want to be more like — and now you should have no excuse for not seeing yourself as a negotiator.

You can overcome these excuses. Each one that I’ve described boils down to a normal, healthy desire to avoid feeling bad about ourselves. Each results from framing negotiation as losing something: relationships, self-esteem, self-worth. To put it simply, we make excuses for negotiating in order to avoid losing face — ours or someone else’s.

Overcoming these excuses requires some self-reflection and a willingness to reframe how you think of negotiation and how you see yourself. You need to reframe each negotiation in terms of what you can gain, and you need see it as natural and desirable that someone like you would pursue those gains. If the relationship is important to you, frame the negotiation as helping the relationship. After all, if you want that raise and you don’t ask for it, you’ll probably wind up leaving your position without ever giving them an opportunity to strengthen your commitment. If your ego is what matters, reframe what success means to you. Think of the self-respect you’ll gain if you ask for what you want while conducting yourself according to your own personal standards of professionalism. If you don’t see yourself as a negotiator, redefine who you think of as a negotiator and choose a role model with whom you share important commonalities. Then negotiating will seem like something you naturally see yourself doing, and you will feel bad if you don’t negotiate.


Judith White is Visiting Associate Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.