The art of negotiating with your boss — part one

December 05, 2007

You don't have to be a power broker juggling corporate mergers to need negotiation skills. Just about everybody must negotiate with a superior at some point, about a raise or an assignment, or even a new idea for a project. Most people are conscious of the power gap between themselves and their bosses; astute employees also realize that the boss's interests may not always align with their own. Knowledge@W. P. Carey interviewed management professor Kevin Corley about the best way to negotiate with your boss. Part One of our two-part series on this topic addresses the matter of self interest -- yours, your boss's, and the organization's. (11:29)



Knowledge:  Understanding the intricacies of the art of the deal isn't knowledge reserved solely to the Titans of corporate America. The average cubicle dweller often finds him or herself negotiating with the boss for everything from a raise to a new assignment.

In part one of this special two-part podcast, Kevin Corlet, Assistant Professor in the Department of Management at the WP Carey School of Business, discusses what is open for negotiation and how employees should go about approaching a boss to get what they want.

When you are talking about negotiating with your boss, you're not just talking about a raise are you?

Kevin Corley:  No, definitely not. One of the things that we recognize when we, when we look at relations between boss and subordinate is that there are a lot of things throughout a normal workday that you actually negotiate for, whether it be placement on a project. It could be funds or other resources for projects that you are doing, all the way up to asking for a raise, asking for a promotion, maybe even asking for a transfer out of that part of the organization.

So there are a lot of different scenarios that people find themselves in when they actually have to negotiate with their boss something that they want. And their boss may or may not want it as well. It's not always the easiest thing to do.

Knowledge:  So why is it difficult to negotiate with your boss?

Kevin:  Well I think that the first reason that most people feel that way is, "Wow, there is a huge power difference going. This is the person who signs my check." Or, "This is the person who can, you know make my work life either miserable or enjoyable depending upon the decisions he or she makes. This is the person who may or may not decide, you know whether I get the promotion that I'm hoping to get, you know after the next performance review."

So the first aspect is just this idea of how can I negotiate with someone who has so much influence over my work and who has the potential to change the way I work, when I work, how I work? So often that's the, when I talk with folks who are interested in negotiating with their boss or becoming better at negotiating with their boss, that's often the first thing I hear is, "How can I do this when he or she has so much more power than I do?"

The second thing I hear is just, "They are at a different level in the organization. Their interests are very different than mine. So I want to go to them with this proposal about how to work on this project or how to approach a client. And their interests may be very different than mine in the sense of they are overseeing a lot more people than just me.

"They are concerned about maybe the department's budget whereas I'm just concerned with a small aspect of that budget." And so some people find that idea of, "How can I connect with my boss to negotiate this when his or her interests are so different from mine?"

And those are probably the two biggest reasons why people don't like the idea of negotiating with their boss.

Knowledge:  So you are going to negotiate with your boss, whether it's a raise, whether it's a new assignment, whether it's trying to get that promotion. What's the best way to influence somebody who has that much more power over you?

Kevin:  Well that's interesting because when we talk about trying to influence someone else who you wouldn't normally think you had much influence over, the best way to think about that is, "How can I get them to see my position satisfying their interests?"

So I'm obviously coming to them with a proposal or an opportunity and there are lots of different ways to frame that. Generally if you go in framing it in such a way that it is only seen as helping you, chances are you're not going to be very successful in influencing that other person.

But if you can frame this opportunity for this proposal in such a way that your boss sees how it could help satisfy his or her interests, you have already taken a very large step in getting them to say yes or at least getting them to think about your proposal in a serious way.

So the first thing that I really recommend people do is to stop and think about where their boss's interests lie. You know, what is it that would make their life, would make their job easier? Because if you can frame your proposal, if you can frame your idea in such a way that they see that their life will be easier, they are much more willing to listen, to work with you, possibly even to say yes to your original proposal.

Knowledge:  And also you mention bringing alternatives to the table.

Kevin:  Certainly, because you know the likelihood of, I mean in any negotiation the likelihood of your first proposal or your first option, the other side saying yes to that is often slim, not only just because your interests may not perfectly align with their interests.

But you know especially if the person likes to negotiate, when you receive someone's first offer you don't necessarily jump on it. You assume that there is something better out there or there might be some way for you to sweeten the deal a little bit. So you know, I caution people that it is fairly nave to walk into any negotiation situation, whether it is buying a car, buying a house, negotiating with your boss, it's nave to think that the first idea, the first proposal you bring to the table, is going to be the one that the other side accepts.

And so having some alternative ideas, having some other ways in which you can achieve your interests and hopefully your boss's interests, in addition to what you were originally bring to the table - that can be extremely helpful. Whether it's, you know reacting to a boss saying no for the first time or dealing with their skepticism, if you have some alternatives, if you are open to alternatives that can be really helpful.

Knowledge:  You mentioned that they shouldn't, when you are negotiating, they shouldn't count on the boss generating certain alternatives and that's probably one of the most uncomfortable positions to be in. You have this idea and the boss just kind of sits there and looks at you.

Kevin:  Exactly. Yeah.

Knowledge:  ...which is why you need those alternatives.

Kevin:  Exactly. And you know hopefully most bosses will not, if you are bringing to them a serious proposal, won't just squash it right away and say no. But like you said, they may not necessarily know how to react because they are sitting there trying to make sense of what your proposal means for them.

And they originally may not see how your idea can help serve their interests. And so they are busy people. They probably like I said, have more than just you on their plate on any given day in terms of responsibilities that they have to get done. To expect them to listen to your proposal and say, "No, but how about this instead?", sometimes that's asking a lot for them.

And so if you are prepared when they say no or, "I don't see how that satisfies, you know what I am trying to get done" or, "You know, that just doesn't make sense in our current financial environment or political environment." If you have another alternative at the ready that, hopefully again satisfies your interests and touches on their interests as well, if you can bring back to the table and show that you are willing, you know that this is important enough to you that you are willing to look at alternatives outside that original option that can actually be something that impresses the boss, that makes them more open to wanted to work with you because you have not put the burden on them.

And for those of us who have been managers and been in charge of other people, we know that when employees come to us and put their burdens on us in addition to all the ones that we already have, sometimes it makes it hard for us to work with them. So it is a really good idea to not only have your original proposal that you would like to talk with them about but have alternatives as well.

Exactly, and that, I mean when - I think your idea of tunnel vision is a really important one because we really do get focused on our own needs, on our own interests. And the ability to step out of our own worldview and to see where our boss is coming from, to see the bigger picture that's going on, whether it's inside our department or the organization as a whole, is really important. Because not only does it help you with timing, you know is this the right time to be asking for this, it can also help with that original framing of your proposal in such a way that it helps your boss out. But it also just clues you in to what's going on around you and maybe you realize there are two or three other people who are asking for something similar or asking something of your boss and that this is not the right approach or the right time to do it.

Or if it is something that still is necessary to happen, understanding who else might be asking for things can help you understand your boss's interests. So this idea of tunnel vision and focusing just on our own situation can be really dangerous, especially if you are going in and asking your boss for something that, you know is going to require something of them.

And therefore, without understanding where they're coming from, you may be asking too much and making it easier for them to say no to you.

Knowledge:  And I guess that also goes to knowing are you so tunnel visioned that you don't see what else is going on in the organization, which could actually get your boss angry that, "I can't believe you're asking for that right now, at this time."

Kevin:  Exactly because the other way that tunnel vision happens is you kind of just think about the here and now. And you don't necessarily think about, "Well, how is this negotiating session that I am about to do with my boss, how is that going to affect me six months or a year down the road?

"If he does say yes to this, how is that going to affect the department or my team six months, a year down the road?" And so it is important to understand the political environment that you're working in, even beyond just negotiating with your boss. But certainly in this situation you're kind of throwing yourself into that political mix by saying to your boss, "Hey, my needs, my proposal is more important than all these other ones that are on your desk right now."

Understanding what that political environment is like and the ramifications for your boss certainly goes a long way.

Knowledge:  In part two of this special podcast, Corlet will look at the importance of understanding not just your negotiating style but your boss' as well.