Put the Money on the Table: How to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone & Ask for What You Want

When it comes to negotiation, let's be honest, women face more challenges and pre-conceived biases than men do.  Still, there are proven tactics we can use to greatly improve outcomes.

This is the second in a two-part series on How to Master the Art of Negotiation.  

My good friend, Mary, tells a funny story about a meeting she had a few years back with a high-level television executive and another colleague, the owner of a television equipment rental company.  At that time, she was the General Manager of an independent television production company. They were there to discuss a potential project that the executive wanted to hire her and her colleague to produce.  

The executive, she reports, went on and on about the great professional opportunity his project offered the two of them, but seemed to be studiously avoiding the topic of compensation. Finally, her colleague, a no-nonsense union guy, leaned forward, put his hand down firmly on the desk, and said, "That all sounds great.  But now it's time to put the money on the table."

We had such a laugh over that.  For years afterward, 'put the money on the table' became our mantra and private joke any time either of us faced a difficult negotiation.

If only it were that easy.  Negotiations where women slam their hand down on the desk and bluntly demand money generally don't go so well.  There's no question that women have a fine line to walk when negotiating compensation, a line that, frankly, men don't have to consider.  

For proof, we have to look no further than the recent uproar over remarks made by Satya Nadella, Microsoft's new CEO.  Speaking at a conference for women in tech, Nadella advised women to avoid asking for a raise, but rather to "trust karma" and wait to have their hard work recognized by their managers.

That advice counters common sense -- and leaves our bank accounts far emptier than they should be. By not asking for what we know we are worth, we leave a lot of money on the table.  Over the course of her professional life, a woman will leave a million dollars on the table because of not knowing how to negotiate compensation. 

There are two critical steps we must take to bridge the gap in our negotiation skills. In a previous post, I outlined the first step, how to accurately assess the value of the work we do, the product or service we offer, or business we've built.  

This post outlines the second critical step, how to artfully ask for what we deserve.

Step 2: Move Out of Your Comfort Zone

When asked by researchers to select a metaphor for the process of negotiation, women chose "going to the dentist" most frequently while men chose "winning a ballgame".

It's not just young women at the start of their careers who feel this way.  One of the more interesting remarks made in the aftermath of the Satya Nadella incident, was a statement by Dr. Maria Klawe, the President of Harvey Mudd College and a Microsoft board member.  

Not only did she emphasize the importance of women asking for the compensation that they deserved. She also revealed that she felt that she hadn't done a good job negotiating her own compensation.  Dr. Klawe frankly admitted that she had been paid significantly less than her male counterparts in her position as Dean of Engineering at Princeton because she hadn't negotiated well.  And she added, she "had also handled her pay discussions at Harvey Mudd poorly, saying that she did not protest when she was offered less money than she thought was appropriate."

It's a relief to learn that even highly accomplished women, far along in their careers, struggle to master negotiation skills.

Many women find the process difficult because they fear being characterized as ‘too aggressive' by the party on the other side of the table, or worse, losing a client or job offer by asking for too much.

Those fears are not without merit.  As Sheryl Sandberg famously pointed out in her book, "Lean In", likeability and success are negatively correlated for women and positively correlated for men

The controversial firing of Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, is a perfect example of this issue in play. Ken Auletta, writing in the New Yorker, reported that Abramson "discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs."

When Abramson asked Arthur Sulzberger, the newspaper's publisher, to address the disparity, she was fired. Faced with a public relations firestorm in the aftermath of the abrupt and public dismissal, The Times made matters worse by implying Abramson's firing was at least partially the fault of her own "mercurial and brusque" personality.  Many in the press felt that the language was code for the double standard women face, particularly in very senior roles. 

While negotiations for most of us, usually, don't turn out this badly, there's no doubt that women must cope with an additional and unique set of challenges.

So, what can we do to mitigate our aversion to negotiation and improve outcomes?  Here are two proven tactics to try.

Your One-Two Punch: Warmth, Then Competence

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, of Harvard Business School, has studied which factors most influence high stakes communications, such as a negotiation.  She found that 80 – 90% of the information a person uses to assess the character of another falls into one of two categories, either warmth or competence. 

What makes it challenging is that, while both are important, it's impossible to project both at once.

The order in which you project these qualities matters too. A lot. Her research found that women are more likely to be penalized permanently if they "fail" in the warmth assessment, so leading with warmth, then focusing on how to demonstrate your competence is her recommended approach.

Cuddy says:

"There are a lot of things that you can do [to project warmth]. One is to let the other person speak first or have the floor first. You can do this by simply asking them a question. … Warmth is really about making the other person feel understood. They want to know that you understand them. And doing that is incredibly disarming. You can also establish trust by collecting information about the other person's interests — get them to share things about themselves. Just making small talk helps enormously. Research proves that five minutes of chit-chat before a negotiation increases the amount of value that's created in the negotiation. What's funny about all this is that the things that you do to increase trust actually often are things that are seen as wastes of time. People say, ‘Oh, I don't have time for small talk.' Well, you should make the time for small talk because it will really help."

Some women may be put off by this advice; Cuddy herself admits that it's controversial.  In a perfect world, we would eradicate sexism and bias in our workplace, rather than ask women to accommodate it.  But while we're waiting for the world to change, we may as well be equipped to deal with the realities we encounter.  Amy Cuddy's research helps us do that.

Hone Your Negotiation Skills

Most of us didn't learn negotiation skills in school; educational institutions are just now beginning to offer classes and workshops for women.  It's a worthwhile investment of time to take steps to hone those skills through practice, rather than waiting until we're in the midst of a high-stakes conversation.

An excellent starting point is the book, "Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want" by Sara Laschever & Linda Babcock (author of the million dollar wage gap study mentioned in my previous post). 

The book coaches readers through the four key stages of a negotiation and tailors the tips to the unique challenges that women face when they assert their agenda in a negotiation.

Another resource is The Wage Project a non-profit that provides women with hands-on training to improve their negotiation skills. 

A recorded video of their workshop, "Smart Start Salary Negotiation", is also available online.

Join the Conversation

Have you recently stepped out of your comfort zone to negotiate compensation, consulting fees or a price for a product or service you offer?   How did it feel and what was the outcome? 

If you've been successful, what tactics contributed to your success?  If you didn't feel it was successful, why not?