Strategies for negotiation: Women in leadership

Businesswoman presenting to colleagues at boardroom meeting, women on board, c-suite

By Allison Elias, Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Darden School of Business

Negotiation in business has traditionally been seen as a tournament: a game of winners and losers, in which the victor emerges triumphant at the expense of the loser, who’s left powerless.

But this framing might not be optimal. Women can advance their careers with more relational and creative strategies that are geared to the building of long-term collaboration and trust. This is very good news for women in business, as it plays better to what are considered to be female “strengths.”

For leaders who care about things like their professional networks and reputation within their organisation or industry, it’s important to build relational capital with others, especially if these are parties with whom you might have to negotiate repeatedly in the future. ‘Winner take all’ is not the best approach.

For women — and especially those women who dislike the “strong arm” tactics of traditional negotiation — rethinking negotiation as relationship-building and collaborative problem-solving can be empowering, not least because it taps into expectations others have of us and certain competencies that many of us already use.

If you see negotiation as something you can use to forge better relationships — relationships that you can then leverage to secure optimal outcomes for yourself – you will know that there’s strength in the more communal way that women typically think about doing business.

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Five tips for better negotiation

Prioritising what the other party wants, or needs, isn’t simply “nice,” it can create more value for both parties in the longer term, so long as negotiators also keep their own priorities top of mind and clearly articulate what they want. To that end, here are some recommendations for women in leadership — techniques and tips that can help them negotiate everything from a job offer to the day-to-day exigencies of corporate life.

1. Shift from win-lose to win-win. Start by purposefully reframing what negotiation means to you. Transition from a focus on winning to one of information gathering, brainstorming, relationship-building, and proposing possibilities. When you deflate the idea of negotiation as a battlefield, you turn away from something that feels negative and daunting toward something more optimistic, collaborative, and positive — and for women this can be particularly empowering.

2. Negotiation is a skill, not a gift. Evidence shows that women are more prone than men to anxiety and self-doubt, especially about their abilities. Anxiety can make any negotiator more prone to accepting suboptimal options. What helps here is to understand that negotiation is a competency that can be learned and developed, just like any other. Women should deliberately seek out opportunities to negotiate; this will help build self-efficacy, which in turn can diminish the feelings of vulnerability and discomfort that accompany anxiety.

3. Craft the message. Research shows that women are less assertive when they are negotiating in their own interest, but significantly more forceful when they are advocating and bringing forward the interests of others. On top of this, when women do stand up for their own abilities assertively, they can be prone to certain biases against likability. To counter this kind of backlash and to bolster feelings of power and assertiveness in the negotiation setting, it’s a good idea to craft messages with care. Think about ways to pair your own strengths and abilities with a more communal concern about the needs and challenges of other parties. Go ahead and ask but ask strategically.

 4. “Shape” the conversation. Research also shows that women who secure leadership positions typically use “bending” or “shaping” strategies in career advancement. In other words, these are women who make proposals or suggestions that might go beyond the immediate or obvious scope of the negotiation — and that can entail better outcomes for both parties. Examples could include proposing a stretch activity — something that gives you broader exposure or a chance to build useful new skills — or taking on more responsibility to help improve or streamline operations. Be sure to think through and articulate the benefits to you, to your team and to your wider organisation.

5. Perform due diligence. Information is power, and nowhere more so than in a negotiation setting. If going for a new position or to a new organisation, make it a priority to research key business interests, corporate values and what the team or company sees as its competitive advantage. Try to get a handle on any internal conflicts that might exist around resources or budgets and how these might impact your strategy and outcomes. And remember that all team members or employees can be sources of valuable information. Where an HR lead might be able to share key details, a hiring boss may be able to break protocol. Make it a priority to build support and to cultivate advocates among managers and colleagues by demonstrating your capacity for hard work, your likability and your commitment to the role and the organisation.

The notion that women are not as effective as men in negotiations — be it negotiating a deal, a raise, a new job or asking for more resources — is simply untrue.

The challenge to women in leadership is to revise this narrative, and to think more creatively about how they can use negotiation to forge more fruitful relationships that yield better outcomes for us all.

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