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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.
Douglas Richardson, CareerJournal
November 14, 2003

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.

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:

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.

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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