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.

Noel’s authority was diminished in a series of baby steps during the negotiations. When he deferred on a point, the employer liked it, so he deferred more. Pretty soon, he felt the leverage and momentum shift, and he couldn’t reassert himself without appearing aggressive. He lost power for negotiating his employment terms and compensation.

Noel also experienced his potential employers’ manifest but unspoken power to reject him without explanation. As a rational, cause-and-effect decision-maker, he was threatened by the idea he might lose because of someone’s whim or bias. Subconsciously he became cautious, so he wouldn’t offend his interviewers.

It’s critical to not lose sight of the benefits of the long-term employment relationship in the short-term interview context. In the interview process, potential employers invariably have the upper hand. They set the pace and appear to define the rules of engagement. If the interviewee tries to over-control the process, the interviewer can reassert power by showing him the door. Therefore, skillful candidates shift everyone’s perspective from the immediate power alignments to the long term “benefits of the bargain”—how everyone will win, and why. They keep reminding the employer of the marriage, not just the wedding.

Terms and Conditions

When agreeing to roles, responsibilities and authority, the process should have a strong win-win flavor. Talking about the things you can agree upon first will establish a constructive tenor. Here, it’s important to stress “we” rather than “I.”

Discussions about money are inherently adversarial. The employer wants to pay as little as possible; you want to maximize the pay figure. If employment negotiations start with an adversarial issue, one party will feel like a winner and the other at least somewhat victimized. This victor-victim subtext can taint discussions about other issues. So talk about compensation last—after you have demonstrated the value you can add to the organization.

All too frequently, discussions about money, benefits and perks degenerate into genteel haggling, not unlike flea-market bargaining. The employer opens by saying he’s prepared to offer X. You say Y would be “a reasonable expectation.” He says they can do X + 5%. You say you could see “all the way down to Y – 8%.” And so on. But unlike the flea market, where you can take or leave that antique nutcracker, these stakes are higher. And the process both use isn’t designed to set a fair market price on your added value—it’s to see who will back down first. The dynamics of the transaction eclipse the bigger value-added picture.

One leading candidate was told to “come on in, because we’re going to make you an offer.” He started the meeting by saying, “I’m very flattered to be receiving an offer, but my priority is finding a way to make this work so that each side comes out feeling like they’ve been respected and not out-bargained.

“Given this premise, before you tell me what you’re prepared to offer, would you tell me why you’re offering it? I have a reasonable expectation of what an attractive package might be, based on the research I’ve done. I’ll be pleased to tell you the factors I’ve used for my expectation — if you’ll share with me the factors you’re using for your offer. If I’m all wet, I’ll listen; I don’t want to be unrealistic or overplay my hand. On the other hand, I’d welcome the opportunity to understand and comment on the basis of your thinking. That way we can put a fair price on the value I’m capable of delivering, rather than seeing who can overpower whom.” After a pause, the board chairman said, “OK, that’s fair.”

When Noel heard of this conversation, his response was, “Gee, I wish I’d thought of that.”

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