Keeping Your Cool in Salary Negotiations

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One big problem people have when negotiating for a job or a raise is that they get in their own way. Negotiating unleashes a brew of emotions – fear of rejection, a lack of confidence, doubts – that can sabotage them. The British have coined a word for this type of anxiety: collywobbles.

Moshe Cohen, author of “Collywobbles: How to Negotiate When Negotiations Make You Nervous,” consults with companies and individuals on leadership and negotiation strategies. But his idea for the book came out of the graduate classes on negotiation he teaches at Boston University. Cohen realized that even when students are fully prepared for a negotiation, they will choke in the moment. He agreed to share some of his insights in the book, which examines negotiating from the perspective of someone who has anxiety. He recently published his second book inspired by the pandemic lockdown: “Optimism is a Choice and Other Timeless Ideas.”

What are collywobbles and how do they manifest in salary negotiations?  

Collywobbles is a British term that means butterflies in your stomach. And people get nervous when they go to negotiate. I wrote “Collywobbles” for a student who works full-time and negotiates every day for her boss but can’t negotiate with her boss because she gets too nervous. She works really hard and never gets that raise or promotion because she never asks for it. The question I answer in my book is: how does she overcome that?

Are women worse negotiators than men and why?

Yes, for two reasons. One is socialization. Generally, I think women are brought up to be more aware of and care about relationships, and they fear that if they advocate for themselves they’re going to damage relationships. Men are socialized to be much more oblivious to those things and freer to ask for things. Men will do things that might damage the relationship but aren’t aware they’re doing it.

The second thing is society’s expectations. If women are strong self-advocates, very often there’s a backlash and they get punished for it in ways that men don’t. If I, as a man, am pushy at my job, I’m seen as a go-getter. If you’re pushy, you’re seen as a bitch. The combination of how society socializes women and how it responds to women is a really intimidating factor.

How about people of color?

I’m certainly not an expert on that but here’s what I’ve observed. One exercise I give my students is that they have to go out and ask for stuff until 10 people say no. They can go to stores and ask for discounts – anything. An African student came to me and said, “How can I ask for a discount when the second I walk into a store employees start following me around?” Once again, context is important. Do people negotiate differently when they’re in a context where they feel comfortable and less likely to incur a backlash? African students negotiate very differently here than they do in Africa where they may have a societal status that entitles them to ask for more. When they’re in this country, they’re just seen as a minority.

Based on the observations and conversations I’ve had, Black Americans deal with the same things we’ve said about women – societal expectations and backlash. If they are concerned about how they’ll be perceived, they might hold back from negotiating, and if they do advocate for themselves, they might incur a negative response.

The same is true for socioeconomic status. Say a student wants to take the afternoon off to take his mom to the doctor. If this student is an office worker in a bank, he might be able to do it. But what if he’s a dishwasher? Will he get the same leeway? When you feel entitled to what you’re asking, you ask with a lot more confidence. People respond to that confidence. Going back to women, they are also socialized to communicate much more indirectly than men. They aren’t socialized to toot their own horn. It’s going to be more indirect and perceived as less confident. This might also be true for people of color.

Is negotiation more important in today’s strong job market or when jobs become scarcer?

Both. But in different ways. In a strong job market, you’re looking to take advantage of opportunity. Salary negotiations happen when you enter the job, sometimes with a recruiter.  You can’t get arrogant about it. You can’t turn people off so when the market turns sour they’re going to remember it. You’re always negotiating within relationships, but that’s more important when you’re negotiating within the job rather than to get the job.

Later, in the job, you’re negotiating with a manager and want to manage that relationship. If you’re arrogant and say you have another job offer, your boss may match it but you’ll be the first one on the layoff list. I’m not saying you shouldn’t leverage that into a higher salary but you’ve got to be smart about how you do that. If you don’t act now, the opportunities will go away.

Why is a soft job market different?

The hard part is getting the interview because every job posted online will receive 10,000 resumés. That’s where leveraging relationships is going to be really important to finding someone with an inside track to recommend you personally. A soft job market is even more relationship based, so you also need to become a better listener. What are the key interests the company or hiring manager is looking for? Frame yourself as the solution to those needs. And develop the skills to get the interviewer to talk to you. If someone asks about your experience with Java programming, you could say, “I’ve worked with it quite a bit so tell me about the applications you’re thinking about so I can tell you more relevant stuff.” Listening is an important skill but it becomes even more important in a soft market. In a hot market, if you are breathing, they’ll hire you.

Why do most people – men and women –  get nervous in negotiations?

A whole bunch of things are going on. We bring a lot of fear into our negotiations. You can think of your fears in three areas. First, fear of a tangible hurt. If I ask for a higher salary offer in a job negotiation, they might rescind the offer. Or if I complain to my neighbor about his fence, he might play loud music. We’re worried about some sort of negative consequence.

The second fear is relationship damage. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “I want to negotiate for a raise or take something off my plate but am afraid of damaging my relationship with the boss.” If asking for something is going to damage the relationship, you already have a problem. The probability that asking for things within reason will damage our relationships is tiny, but our fear of it is huge. Humans are essentially pack animals. Being part of the group is essential to our psychological well-being. We’re afraid that if we do things that are perceived as too assertive, we’ll be pushed out of the herd.

The third fear is emotional pain. Negotiations involve rejection, and rejection hurts. Imagine you ask your boss for a 10 percent raise, and the boss says you deserve 2 percent. The boss clearly doesn’t value you as much as you think your boss should. The fear of that pain actually stops people from asking.

If negotiations are emotional, how do we control emotions?

There’s managing your emotions in the moment and then there’s gaining a deeper understanding of your emotional relationship to negotiations so that you can change your approach. I deal with this in two very different sections in my book. Life happens in moments. You might be fully prepared, but the other person asks something you don’t know how to answer and you panic. Managing those moments is critical because you can have a negotiation that’s 99 percent successful and then blow it. Anything that happens to you happens on an emotional level first. Initially, you get an amygdala spike, but that emotion subsides with time. Meanwhile, your cognitive brain is slowly catching up. When the two cross, the cognitive brain regains control, and you can respond strategically to the situation. The better you understand the triggers that send your emotions into overload – time pressure, personalities, authority figures, fear of conflict – and the more aware you are of your triggers, the less triggering they are.

Next, it’s important to be aware of what happens to you under stress. Different people have different stress symptoms. When you feel the symptoms, that’s a signal to slow down time. You can do that by staying silent – then you’re not saying anything you’re going to regret. You can call for a time out and say, “Thank you and let me get back to you.” Instead of responding to a surprising question, ask the other person questions. While they’re talking, you’re also calming down. I take notes as I negotiate because writing things down calms me down.

Is it important to take a break sometimes when you’re negotiating?

One thing you can do when you start your phone negotiation is to write down a bunch of excuses to use when you need to take a break. Say, “I need to look something up or check with my spouse.” Or, “Sorry my kids came home and I need to get them settled. I’ll call you back.”

Finally, you need to know when to walk away. If you’re looking for a job and, given your education, you’re worth $80,000 and they’re offering you $63,000, are you taking this job because you’re scared you won’t get another job? Anything you do in negotiation involves risk, but locking yourself into agreements that are bad for you can cause you long-term damage tangibly and emotionally. Sometimes it’s better to take the risk and walk away than to concede and agree to unacceptable terms.

How do self-perceptions figure into how people negotiate?

A number of factors matter, but our fears often drive our narratives – what we tell ourselves.  For example, I might think a client doesn’t need to do business with me. Or if I go into a negotiation thinking my boss doesn’t like me, how can I negotiate? We all have stories in our head and need to be aware of them.

If developing an awareness of your narratives is difficult for you, try talking to a friend. If your friend helps you articulate that you don’t feel like you deserve the position, then you might remember that you have a lot of data showing how much you do deserve it. Once you realize you’re telling yourself a story and examine that story, you can become the author rather than the victim of it. You can rewrite your story, for example, by telling yourself that your boss invited you into this conversation and sees something you don’t see in yourself. Same situation, different mindset.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.  This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.