Lessons in Diplomacy – Negotiating Your Next Career Step

Lessons in Diplomacy

Once the world economy moves beyond debt crisis and political gridlock, the ‘war for talent’, which has dwindled to little more than a playground squabble in some sectors, may be back on with a vengeance.

Of course, the nice thing about this will be that instead of keeping your head down and hoping that you don’t fall prey to downsizing, you’ll be able to look for a bigger and better role either within or outside of your current employer. But to get the best deal you will need to hone negotiation skills, which may have become blunted in the long, drawn-out downturn. And who better to help you redevelop these skills than professors at some of the world’s top business schools, who teach this sort of thing for a living?

According to David Venter and Katia Tieleman, who specialise in negotiation and conflict management at Vlerick Leuven Gent in Belgium, one of the most dangerous approaches you can take in any negotiation is setting your expectations too low. Their research suggests that this leaves you with little room for making concessions and, perhaps crucially, can lead to both parties coming away dissatisfied with the outcome. However, it’s also essential that you know what your ‘base point’ is – the trigger that will make you walk away from the discussion. Otherwise you will almost certainly end up compromising your interests.

The key to setting this base point is to have what Pablo Restrepo of Desautels at McGill University in Canada calls a BATNA or ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’. Or, to put it another way, knowing what you are going to do if the final offer from your opposite number simply isn’t good enough.

Restrepo also points out that many people fail to achieve their objectives because they negotiate sequentially, one issue at a time, whereas the most effective approach is to come to the table with a comprehensive agenda that will give both parties more room for manoeuvre. “Maybe you cannot get all you want,” he says. “Maybe you can’t get the salary you were expecting, so you must be ready to say: ‘Okay, I can live with this. I understand that this is the policy of the company for this job assignment, so I could consider this if you could give me flexible hours to spend more time with my kids.’ The more issues you put on the table, the more you can work on trade-offs.”

If you are aiming for something better within the organisation you already work for, you should have the advantage of knowing how to deal with the person on the other side of the table. “Put yourself in your boss’s shoes and consider how they like to receive information, whether it’s data-heavy bullet points or a dramatic story,” says Robert Bontempo, who teaches negotiation and persuasion to MBA and exec-ed students at Columbia Business School in New York. He also points out that the real decision maker when it comes to your pay increase or promotion may lie further up the chain of command, in which case what you are aiming to do is to recruit your immediate superior as an ally for a later negotiation, not to seek a deal on the spot.

Although aiming high is important in the negotiation process, so too is accepting the reality of your situation, because that is the only way you can begin negotiating yourself better terms. “My research suggests that women were more disadvantaged in the workplace than men by the global financial crisis,” say Isabel Metz, a professor at Australia’s Melbourne Business School. “For example, they were expected to simply stay with the organisation and accept increasingly challenging performance standards and less in the way of training and development. But they’ve not renegotiated their standing because much of this has come about through a very subtle form of sexism that has gone unnoticed. You have to remain vigilant if you are going to fulfil your true potential.”

No matter what approach you take to negotiating yourself a better deal, the key will be to ensure that you never let the necessary skills slip again. “We invest a lot of time and effort in coaching students in personal development,” says Tony Somers, director of the MBA Career Management Center at HEC Paris, “including a number of programmes focused on salary negotiation and interaction in the workplace. Ultimately we help people to boost their careers. But the real test comes when they have to apply their negotiation skills back in the workplace. Because of that, participants in the part-time and executive MBAs are in a real win-win situation. They get all the up-to-date theory and the opportunity to test it in the frontline on a continuous basis. And if a tactic doesn’t work, they can come back a few days later and ask us why not!”

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