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.

A surprising number of executives leave attractive jobs after short, unsuccessful tenures. They often say they knew during interviews there might be a problem, but they didn’t want to make waves. They hoped for the best…and got the worst. Particularly at the executive level, a quick choice can be catastrophic. If significant concerns arise affecting fit, it’s better to air them during the selection process. If they’re deal-killers, better to know now.

Faces of Power

Noel and his new employer didn’t intend for his interviews and negotiations to be winner-take-all battles. His interviewers weren’t trying to bargain for advantage or take Noel down a peg. Yet somehow things got adversarial, with Noel feeling like he “lost.”

Power isn’t a simple yes-or-no thing. There are many types and styles of power, each reflecting a different mode of influencing others. Noel has a lot of “expert” power due to his industry knowledge and technical credentials. Oprah Winfrey and Robert Redford have charismatic power, and people tend to follow them irrationally. Mother Theresa had moral power, while the mugger holding a Glock 9 to your head has punitive power. Interviewers have position power: clout because they’re making the hiring decision.

Most people have a natural primary “default” power that shapes how they influence others. They assume others will relate to them using the same primary power style. This means they may not use the type of power that’s most appropriate for a particular situation. If they attempt to override their natural influencing style, they may seem forced or unnatural.

When two human beings meet, they subconsciously seek answers to four power-related questions:


  • Do I respect you? Who defers to whom…and why?


  • Do I like you? Do I feel comfortable and open with you?


  • Do I believe and trust what you’re saying? Are we having a real conversation or is our interaction artificial or manipulative?


  • Are we alike? Do we share the values, priorities and experiences needed for a meaningful relationship?

An employment negotiations, these rapport- and trust-building questions become muted and manipulated, masking the parties’ true power posture. Both with words and demeanor, a candidate for a leadership position may want to seem as powerful and decisive as possible—despite being an affiliation-seeking or collaborative person. Tough guys may try to appear mellow or deferential; conservatives may try to look entrepreneurial.

Noel got caught between being respected and being liked. Knowing that his style can be aloof and opinionated, he tried to seem personable and collaborative. He may have succeeded too well—coming across as more accommodating than he really is. He made himself likable and showed he could address the organization’s needs. But in so doing, he didn’t get his needs and priorities articulated and ratified.

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