Negotiating Effectively When You Feel Outgunned

Executives often feel overwhelmed by an employer's perceived power during job-offer negotiations. But by stressing the long-term benefits of the marriage over the wedding, you can maintain parity and keep the interaction positive.

Hired as vice president of a multinational’s high-profile division, Noel wasn’t happy. Due to his past successes, technical credentials and stellar references, he should have been able to write his ticket. However, he wasn’t thrilled by the offer he accepted and he blames himself.

Noel [a composite of three executives] had been ardently recruited, sailed through the headhunter’s initial screening, done his homework on the company and survived the hugs and heat with composure. He seemed to have all the leverage he needed.

So what happened? When negotiating business matters involving others, Noel is highly skilled, fair and able to hold his own. But when negotiations involve his role, compensation and performance incentives, things break down. He believes he didn’t effectively present his cause, which cost him financially and reduced his clout in his new role.

Certainly, his new package isn’t insulting, and he won’t know for a while how his standing might be affected. But this matter isn’t trivial or without future reverberations. All people act on the basis of their perceptions, and Noel perceives himself as having negotiated poorly, which may color his interactions in his new job. Perhaps he’ll show resentment or overcompensate for his perceived loss of standing by being too aggressive. His may have less self-control and self-confidence or feel more passive, conformist or conflict-averse than usual. None of this bodes well for his future.

Dangers of the “Game Face”

Two factors likely were at work during his talks:

  1. How the parties regarded the interview process and

  2. The perceived alignment of power—formal and informal—among the negotiating parties.

People contemplating marriage spend more time and effort thinking about the wedding than about married life; after all, the wedding is the threshold event. Similarly, many job seekers see the interview and selection process as an end unto itself. They want to “create good chemistry” and find the right “fit,” and they’re genuinely concerned with their long-term satisfaction, growth and economic well-being. Yet when immersed in the hiring process, many candidates get caught up in the dynamics. Rather than seeing it as the foundation for long-term relationships or a way to gauge the working environment, they try to “win” the interview and get the offer.

In the heat of the moment, even the most sophisticated executives can lapse into a reactive, short-sighted mindset and communicate from behind a “game face.” This may be a poker face, happy façade or something glib. One senior corporate lawyer calls it her “dancing-bear suit.”

Rather than being an exchange of relevant information or an exercise in rapport-building, the interview process becomes a form of ritual competition. It’s interviewer vs. interviewee and a question of who can out-think whom. It can get manipulative on both sides.

Don’t Forget to Buy

Don’t let your eagerness to look good or please screeners hamper your resolve to learn all you can about your role and authority or the “culture,” style and temperament of co-workers. In other words, don’t forget to buy. You must learn how performance will be gauged and about the forces affecting your advancement. Noel isn’t sure about his standing because he allowed the selection process to play out superficially, with all parties maintaining game faces. They postured. He postured. Now no one knows where the other stands.


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