May 2015 | 

Bargaining Advice for Women: The Problem-Solving Conversation

Bargaining Advice for Women

“You can’t improve on a skill that you’re avoiding,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “Many people shy away from negotiations because they associate them with conflict, but avoiding them means you’ll never get better at it.”

Rothbard tells executives in High-Potential Leaders: Accelerating Your Impact and Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success to consider changing this negative mindset — negotiation as confrontation — to one that is positive. “Think instead about negotiations as problem-solving conversations. This switch helps you engage with and practice them. There are so many negotiation opportunities around us — many more so than we are aware of when we view them negatively.”

But these problem-solving conversations, say Rothbard, shouldn’t be approached haphazardly. “Preparation is key,” she says. “First, determine what you want, what you need (your bottom line), and what your alternatives are.

“Once you understand yourself, you can then take the perspective of the other party. What do they want? What do they need, and what are their alternatives?” Rothbard notes that active perspective-taking involves systematically thinking about and researching what they have done in the past, what kinds of industry information could shed light on their alternatives, and what their competitors have done.

“Above all, you need to avoid a fallacy it’s so easy to fall into: projecting your desires on someone else and assuming what you want is what they want. If you do that, you start the conversation believing there is a conflict: ‘we all want the same thing, so there is a fixed pie that has to be divided.’ They may in fact have very different priorities.”

Job negotiations are a good example. You and your employer both care about salary, but your employer may care more about potential vacation days or other benefits that are invisible to you. You may care more about a start date or bonus. When your priorities differ, you have tradeable interests, and there is a greater possibility that you can both get something you want.

Shared interests, says Rothbard, can also be challenging to see. “Both parties can be so busy hiding what they want that they don’t realize they both want the same thing. In a problem-solving conversation, you need to create an atmosphere of trust in which you can reciprocally get information on the table.”

Women and Negotiation

For women, the challenges can be more complex. Women tend to be more apprehensive about negotiating in general, says Rothbard. “When we talk about this in my session in Women’s Executive Leadership, we discuss how men and women use very different metaphors for negotiations. Men describe them as a ball game or a wrestling match, whereas women say it’s like going to the dentist. Reframing negotiations as problem-solving conversations helps. Instead of expecting them to be confrontational, they can approach negotiating as a collaborative effort.”

Citing research by Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon and Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard, Rothbard explains that when women do negotiate, they may be negatively perceived as not relational or warm, and that can result in a backlash. Rothbard tells participants in Women’s Executive Leadership though, that the result is not inevitable. She shares three techniques Bowles and Babcock have identified that can lead to more positive perceptions:

  • Invoke relationship: use ‘we and us’ language instead of ‘I and me,’ and link your request to a sponsor or another person of higher status to provide legitimacy.
  • Frame things as a question: seek advice rather than make a demand (“how would you suggest I go about this?”)
  • Frame the negotiation as a skill-based contribution: emphasize that what you are negotiating for is beneficial to the organization and that you are a positive contributor.

“Problem-solving conversations take work,” notes Rothbard. “Before they begin, research and preparation are important. And, for women, the language you use and the frame you put around the conversation can help you get what you want. You can’t always avoid conflict in negotiations, but it’s not mandatory. Your mindset can make an enormous difference.”