The art of negotiating with your boss — part two

January 02, 2008

One of the most difficult tasks for a worker is negotiating with a boss. Whether it's getting a raise or a new assignment, or a simple request for more office supplies, asking a boss for anything can be nerve-wracking. 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 addressed the matter of self interest -- yours, your boss's, and the organization's. Part Two discusses how knowing your boss's negotiating style can make all the difference between success and failure. (15:30)



Knowledge: One of the most difficult tasks for a worker is negotiating with a boss. Whether it's trying to get a raise or new assignment to simply asking for more office supplies, asking a boss for anything is nerve wracking.

In part two of our special podcast, Kevin Corley, assistant professor of management at the W.P. Carey School of Business, looks at how knowing your boss's negotiating style can make all the difference between success and failure.

Of the people who are asking something of their boss, how many of them are really cognizant of how their boss operates and how they react to that, the way the boss operates?

Kevin Corley: Yeah. That's a great question, because most of us probably feel like we know our bosses well, and how well we actually know them is probably an open question. For instance, if you can understand that your boss really does not like conflict, tends to avoid situations where he or she has to negotiate, taking a hard sell -- going in hard and really pushing and trying to confront them on an issue -- probably isn't the best approach.

And so, not only does this require you understanding a bit about your boss's preferred style when it comes to dealing with negotiating, when it comes to dealing with confrontation, but it also requires understanding your own style. And there are plenty of us out there who have a hard time understanding what our own preferred style is, or at least admitting what our own preferred style is.

It's amazing the number of students who come into a negotiating class that I may be teaching, and their initial response to my question of "What's your preferred style?" is, "I'm very collaborating, I like to work with other people." And yet when they get into an initial negotiating situation, I see immediately that they are much, much more avoiding or accommodating. They're too focused on the other side's needs or they're not doing a good job of really dealing with the issues that are on the table. They'd prefer to avoid it.

And so not only do you have to have some understanding of where your boss is coming from and how your boss prefers to handle situations like this, but you have to understand yourself as well. If you're someone who is very competitive, seeks out confrontation, tackles things head-on, very little dancing around the issue, that's not going to work well with a boss, like I said, who tends to be more avoiding or more accommodating.

So it can all kind of come into how you initially approach that, the framing, the timing, understanding the political situation, and understanding how your boss prefers to deal with situations like this. Because the more comfortable you can make your boss, and the more comfortable your boss is in dealing with your style, again, the more likely he or she is to be able to work with you.

Knowledge: And going back to what you said about, on the other side, maybe most of us are too accommodating and too willing to give up when you boss starts saying, "What about this, what about that." Instead with the alternatives, I guess you have to look at it politically on whether you're going to say this alternative strays too far from my interests and stops being something I'm interested in, learning how to say that judiciously and diplomatically.

Corley: Right. I think you're exactly right. One of the biggest problems that we talk about in negotiations is the idea of walking away from the table when you shouldn't. Typically this is a situation where the two sides decide that they really can't find a shared area to agree upon, and so one party will leave the table, either out of frustration or because the timing's no longer right, or whatever it happens to be.

When you're dealing with your boss and your boss seems to be throwing up some roadblocks, seems to be resistant to your ideas or possibly is throwing out alternatives that don't seem to match your interests, I think a lot of us, our tendency is to try to get out of that situation and say, "OK, thanks for your time, obviously this isn't going to work," and then leave.

Whether that's because you actually have an avoiding style or whether it's because you just are fearful that if you push it too hard, your boss is going to react negatively, get upset somehow, use it against you in the future, I think some of us decide to leave the table too soon when we're dealing with our boss. And a lot of that has to do with slipping into more of an avoiding style in our negotiating.

We go in, we try to be collaborative, we try to look for that common ground, and at the first sign that things are not going to work, we decide to get out as quickly as we can. Whereas our boss may just be warming up, may be getting to the point where she sees why this could be important or why your idea is something that needs to be considered for the team or for the department or whatever it happens to be.

So you would think that the biggest problem with this --negotiating with your boss -- would be that people are too competitive and go in and cause too much conflict, but I suspect it's actually on the other side. There are people who are actually getting out of that interaction with their boss, getting out of the negotiation, probably before they should.

Knowledge: So let's say you've gone to your boss, you've asked her, "This is what I'd like." You've presented alternatives, you've listened to her alternatives, and you still can't get the boss to say yes. You've done everything you can, you've gone with their style, you've learned their style, you know your style. At that point, what do you do?

Corley: Hopefully, before you've even gone in you've thought about your alternatives. There's a famous notion called a BATNA: best alternative to a negotiated agreement. And it's this idea that before you even go in to a negotiation, you should consider: If I'm not able to get what I need through this negotiation, what's my best alternative? Where else can I go to get my interests met?

It's no different in a situation where you're dealing with your boss. Hopefully, before you've gone in to present your proposal, to talk through your idea and to listen to their response to it, you've thought about your alternatives. How else can I get these resources on my team? If I can't get the resources, how else can my team finish this project or do what it needs to do without those resources?

So the first thing that I would counsel people on is to think about this before you even go in. It's not assuming the worst. You're not admitting defeat before you walk in the door by saying, well, I need to think about what happens if she says no. You're simply preparing yourself. You're doing what is necessary to take care of your own interests.

Outside of that, I think if you've done a good job of understanding what the political climate is like -- for your boss, for yourself, for your team -- you should be looking at other people you can go to, to satisfy your interests other than your boss. But you don't want to do it in such a way that you commit a political faux pas.

Knowledge: Do an end-run around your boss.

Corley: Exactly. The last thing you want to do is step on your boss's toes or look like your boss has said no and so you're going -- it's like when you were a kid and you asked your dad for a popsicle and he said no, and you immediately ran to your mom and tried to get her to say yes.

You don't want to come across that way, because obviously your boss said no for a reason. And if you're trying to get around that decision by going either above him or her or something like that, chances are you may get what you want, but chances are in the long run you've hurt your relationship with your boss.

But that doesn't mean that there might not be other people inside the organization, there might not be other people inside the department, that can help you. Maybe not with your original proposal, maybe not with the original needs that you laid out in your plan, but in other ways that can help you still achieve your interests.

So there's some political trickiness there that you need to be careful of, but I think your boss saying no doesn't necessarily have to be the end. It doesn't necessarily have to mean that your interests can't be met. It's just a matter of being smart about how you go looking for those alternatives.

Knowledge: When you said about, when you walk in, you should already be prepared, not for the worst, but for what could happen, that goes into what you mention about doing your research and bringing that with you before you even walk into that door.

Corley: Oh, yeah. Most people would not go buy a car, most people would not go out and buy a house, without doing research. Which cars have the best safety ratings? What the dealer costs of this car? The same type of research needs to go into meeting with your boss. Whether it's some of the stuff we've talked about, about doing your homework in terms of the political climate, doing your homework in terms of where your boss's interests lie, but also doing research in terms of understanding what the financial costs of your proposal are, understanding really what's the manpower, what are the human resources that are needed to accomplish this. Understanding the time frame that you're asking for.

You may want it to be six months long, but in doing your research, you find out that an important initiative is going to be starting in the organization in the next three months. It's much more important for you to get your proposal done in those three months than to drag it out and have it interfere with this new initiative that's going on.

So just as you would do research in a negotiation when you want to buy a large item or something like that, research is vital in going in and talking with your boss.

Knowledge: And the learning doesn't stop when you walk in and ask for what you want, it goes on into listening to what he has to say about either yes or no, or here's an alternative.

Corley: Definitely. And this is another story that I've heard a lot of people talk about, is that they go in, they lay their proposal on the table, they explain to their boss why they're asking for this, and instead of listening to that response -- instead of really truly paying attention to not only the initial reaction, but the explanation for why the boss is reacting that way -- they're thinking about the next thing they're going to say. They're thinking about, "Did I say that in the right way? Did it come out the right way?"

They don't pay attention to what their boss is saying back to them. And the reason why that's so critical is because any negotiation situation there's going to be back-and-forth. There's going to be multiple rounds of, "Here's my position, here's your position. Here's my interests, here's your interests." Every time your boss says something back to you about, "Oh, gee, it's going to be really difficult because..." "Oh, this sounds really similar to something that we tried last year."

Every time you get something like that back, it's information for you to not only understand where your boss is coming from, but to possibly understand which of the alternatives you've brought with you might come across best, or might be best-suited to match their interests. Or you might even hear from them, "I would love to do this, but now's not the right time, a month from now would be." Or the next fiscal period or something like that.

If you're not paying attention during the negotiation, you could really lose a lot of insight that would help you work with your boss and come up with a solution that meets both of your interests. And the biggest reason, I find, that people do that is they're focused on their own thoughts, usually having to do with what I just said or what I'm about to say. It's another key point, to really listen, pay attention, and gather that information so that you can work with you boss and come out with, hopefully, a solution that's going to serve both of you.

Knowledge: And at the very least, give you the dignity that you need and the knowledge you need to leave and say, "OK, we'll try this some other time," without committing office suicide.

Corley: Certainly. Because even though I caution, "Don't walk away from the table too soon," sometimes you still have to know when to walk away. You have to know when you've pushed it as much as you can, and the timing just isn't right, the proposal isn't right, there isn't an alignment of interests in this particular situation.

And realizing that this is one small aspect of your ongoing job, that there are going to be other battles that you need to fight, other proposals that you need to put by your boss in the future. Not ending it in a bad way is really important, and it's something that is hard, because there are emotions at this point. It's very easy to consider yourself as having lost, and that's very emotional, especially if what you were asking for is very important.

But to end the interaction in such a way that it's positive, that your boss still respects you, possibly you've built some negotiating capital for the next time you go and ask for something. Because even though our bosses can be strict and hard on us sometimes, generally people don't like saying no over and over and over to people.

So even though you weren't able to get what you needed this time, end it in a positive way so that the next time you go to your boss and ask for something they're already more likely at least to listen to you, because they said no last time and they're remembering that you handled it well, that you were professional about it, and that it didn't hurt your relationship with them. That's gong to go a long way to helping you out in the future.

Knowledge: And you learn to pick your battles.

Corley: Exactly. Exactly. And it's hard to know sometimes when it's important to push and when it's not. It's a learning experience. But the only way you're going to learn that is to try. Which gets us back to where we started off this conversation, and that is, don't be afraid to negotiate with your boss. Just do it in the right way.