HBR | Six Tips for Reluctant Negotiators

I had been hired to do 1-on-1 speed-coaching sessions at the Summit Series at Powder Mountain, and I was confident I could help one person, in particular, to take his career to the next level. Once back in the office, I pinged him: “I would love to coach you. Any interest in exploring?” He responded enthusiastically. Yes! But when I began to talk terms, he demurred. I didn’t realize this would cost money. I thought you were doing this to be nice. I had been so excited. It wasn’t just about money, but I needed to put a value on my expertise.

After this recent exchange, I realized my negotiation skills needed a refresher course. Serendipitously, I had the opportunity to chat with Hannah Riley Bowles, a negotiation expert, who teaches the course Women and Career Negotiations at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Based on our conversation, here’s my updated crib sheet:

Signal that you are transacting. For most people in the corporate world, unless you are in “sales,” it’s a soft sell. The transaction is implicit as you interact with clients, but you may never have to actually ask for their business. When you are in business for yourself, however, you most definitely do — which means you need to give cues that you are talking business rather than engaging in a social nicety.Bowles advises, “One way to signal that you are talking business and not just acting “out of the goodness of your heart,” is to say things like, “This is the kind of advice that I give to my clients. Or, “Call me if you’d like to explore working together.” She also suggests, “Carry business cards and use them.” I didn’t have cards with me at Summit. Next time.

Sit on both sides of the table. To be successful professionally, you need to command respect – and this involves the ability to negotiate effectively. However, negotiating for oneself makes both men and women less likable – but more so for women. While men who are no-nonsense negotiators are respected and rewarded for this skill, women may be labeled as a tough and unlikeable. (The alternative is being a likeable woman who doesn’t get ahead.) So it’s actually a good sign if women are nervous walking into a negotiation: “It means that you are correctly reading the social environment,” says Bowles.

One way to gain respect while lowering the social cost is to follow the model Sheryl Sandberg used when she negotiated her COO role at Facebook: “I said to Mark

[Zuckerberg], ‘You realize you’re hiring me to run our deal teams, so you want me to be good at this.'” Effectively Sandberg told her would-be boss, ‘Don’t hate me because I’m good at negotiating.’ Her follow-up was equally important. “This is the last time I’ll be on the other side of the table.” Bowles dissects her strategy: “Sandberg first explained why negotiating was a legitimate course, and then signaled her concern for organizational relationships.” If you want to negotiate successfully, lay out the logic of what you are proposing within the context of your relationship. Sandberg was effective because she recognized and assuaged the concerns of the other party, and this applies equally for both men and women when negotiating. When it’s not about me, but we, you’re sitting on both sides of the table.

Power up. Overconfident negotiators risk becoming self-centered and oblivious to others’ needs. But underconfident negotiatiors have a different problem: appearing as a supplicant, not a peer. If you’re not yet feeling powerful? Do what Harvard professor Amy Cuddy advises: “Strike a power pose, adopting expansive, non-verbal postures that are strongly associated with power and dominance across the animal kingdom. Think Wonder Woman.” Priming the pump of power allows you to behave as if you expect the deal you are offering will work, which is more likely to result in an optimal agreement for all parties.

Disentangle negotiation from updates. One of the ways you establish your worth is by apprising your counterparts of recent developments. Because reluctant negotiators can be so uncomfortable with touting themselves, even an update can feel self-aggrandizing. The problem is that if you don’t sock away political capital into the bank of your boss’s opinion, you’ll enter a high stakes negotiation at a disadvantage. The question is no longer — how can you be rewarded, but did you achieve? We further disadvantage ourselves if we store up all of our accomplishments until that one big moment, and then, much like children, fling our arms open, saying, “Look what I’ve done! Reward me.” This seems to be especially common with women. And there’s a certain logic to it; women do need to rack up more accomplishments to prove that they are just as qualified as their male peers. However, saving up all those achievements for one big reveal comes across as neediness, not negotiation. Whether you’re inside a corporation or independent, “establish a monthly check-in with your boss or your clients: here’s what we’re doing, where we’re going,” says Bowles. This signals momentum, and people will pay a premium for momentum.Once you’ve already established your worth, you won’t need to toot your horn at the negotiating table.

Excise emotion. When I want something too much, my emotions can take over. Early in her career, Liz O’Donnell, author of Mogul, Mom and Maid, was advised to try this exercise to prevent that from happening: “Point at the conference room table, and say ‘This is a table.’ The statement was neutral and non-controversial. It was almost impossible to attach any feeling to it. After repeating the phrases several times, the coach had her say what she needed to say to her boss, devoid of emotion.” Intense negative or positive feelings can be instrumental in attaining concessions, but in my case, it means I’m the one giving up ground. I have needed a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, as well.

Look to the horizon. “The most important thing as you negotiate is to look at where you want to go,” says Bowles. On some level, I know this, but I haven’t really applied it to my negotiating technique. I’m discovery-driven, I aver. It’s also a little scary to think too far into the future; that requires a long game and the confidence that you actually can navigate to that future. But understanding where you want to end up is critical, because it gives you power to own your career and to be seen as a strong visionary who knows what she wants and how to get it.

Nothing will improve your bottom line, professionally, personally, and emotionally more consistently than being able to effectively negotiate. It’s something you do every single day of your life and involves essential life skills: defining who you are and what you need in your business and personal relationships; learning to give clear signals about what you want (and being able to read those signals from others); understanding the effective use of “no” and “yes”; and knowing how to enrich your life and the lives of those around you. Some of us are good at the “get,” others at the “give,” but a one-sided approach to negotiation leads to fractured and poisoned relationships. Learn to do both and you can begin to build a career (and relationships) that last a lifetime.

Originally posted at Harvard Business Review

HBR Dream: “Disrupt Yourself”

One of my dreams came true this month; I published in the Harvard Business Review magazine.

The article titled Disrupt Yourself applies Clayton Christensen‘s disruptive innovation frameworks apply to career disruption, and includes the stories of Dave Blakely, Liz Brown, Heather Coughlin, Martin Crampton, Alex McClung, Sabina Nawaz, Adam Richardson, and Gregory Sorensen.  Accompanying the article is a 3-minute video and a companion piece by global recruiter Claudio Fernandez-Araoz Why I Like People with Unconventional Resumes.

Due to article length, several fascinating stories were cut, including those of Saul Kaplan, Chief Catalyst at the Business Innovation Factory, Christine Koh, founder of Boston Mamas, and author of the forthcoming Minimalist Parenting, and finally cancer researcher Dr. Steven Curley.

You can read them below.


If you want to succeed, rather than travel worn paths of accepted success, find new paths. – John D. Rockefeller

After early career success as a manager at Eli Lilly, Saul Kaplan became bored and changed paths to become a consultant where he was stimulated by new assignments, travel and a variety of roles. After twenty years as a road warrior consultant, Kaplan felt the pull of a new challenge – the public sector. He took a dramatic course change, focusing on his local community, and worked first in business development in Rhode Island, eventually ending up on the governor’s cabinet as an economic advisor. From there Kaplan went on to found the enormously successful Business Innovation Factory where as a self-proclaimed “innovation junkie,” he is constantly in the thick of new ideas and cutting-edge business ingenuity.  Kaplan says, “I saw too many people making

[career] choices based on money, stature or title.  I knew if I stayed on a steep learning curve, I would do my best work, which would create high-profile jobs, and I would make money over the long span of my career.”


Christine Koh (@bostonmamas) built a respected career as a music and brain scientist in academia, then decided to change course for a more flexible and multi-faceted working life.  She founded and edits Boston Mamas, a stylish online resource for families in the Boston area; she put her artistic skills to work and created a graphic design firm, Posh Peacock; her passion for communicating has led her to freelance writing and editing, with her book “Minimalist Parenting” slated for publication in 2013. Christine has been recognized as a top mom blogger and featured in multiple major media outlets for both her writing and design work. She had a good job as a researcher and professor in academia, but by disrupting herself, Christine has been able to very successfully use her innate talents to bridge previously untapped and emerging markets and achieve a greater level of personal fulfillment.


There are different permutations of disruptive strengths.  Take Dr. Steven Curley, a cancer researcher at M.D. Anderson Medical School in Houston.  A well-regarded physician, Curley understands there are clear processes for vetting research.  Priority is given to the work of other academics.  For Curley, playing to his disruptive strengths meant changing his processes and even priorities, and listening to John Kanzius, a radio and TV engineer, who imagined a cancer treatment utilizing non-invasive radio frequency waves.   As an accomplished surgeon and scientist, Curley could have dismissed Kanzius as a dilettante at best, a crackpot at worst, who first demonstrated his ideas using pie pans and hot dogs.  Dr. Curley’s disruptive strength was a willingness to abandon established practices in his field and go with his gut. Because of Curley’s ability to ignore his “company culture,” he is now pursuing an innovative cancer treatment based on Kanzius’ research.

P.S. Thank you again to my fantastic editors at Harvard Business Review, Sarah Green and Alison Beard for making this dream a reality.

HBR | What Magic Power Would You Choose?

Found in a seven year old girl's journal (all spellings preserved):

“If I were a super hero my super power would be invisbility because if a bad guy came I could turn invibel and fite him with out him seeing me.” 

Do you view invisibility as a powerful cloak to protect you, or a major setback to your career?

In my post today at Harvard Business Review, I talk about how invisibility has been both a help and a hindrance in my career. I hope you'll read, share, and comment.

And, my friend Kathy Caprino posted an interview with me today on Forbes. Check it out!

HBR Blog: Introductions are Much More Than Icebreakers

Icebreaker – n. a ship specially built for breaking navigable passages through ice.

Click here for my latest post over at HBR:  Introductions are Much More than Icebreakers.

Source:  istockphoto

And now for the story behind this post…

This post was initially inspired by an article about executive compensation consultant Pearl Meyer (hat tip to Stacey Petrey).  Ms. Meyer sold her business, Pearl Meyer Consulting, and its name (her name), a decade ago.  As I read her story, I kept wondering — what would it be like to be stripped of my name?

In an interview with Forbes, she explains, “For over a decade, I declined all offers to sell my firm

[the largest independent executive compensation practice in the U.S.].  When a suitor came along who said, ‘Tell me everything you want’ and said yes to everything, I sold because I didn’t want to let my partners down [each of whom stood to profit nicely].  I especially didn’t realize my name went with the sale.  That was my second big mistake.”  She continues, “When we left, I turned to Steven Hall, my senior partner, and said, “It's your turn now to use and maybe lose your name.”

Ms. Meyer's experience again reminded me of a passage from The Zookeeper's Wife, a biography of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Polish Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism who managed to save over three hundred people, author Diane Ackerman's writes movingly about Polish émigré Eva Hoffman’s psychic earthquake of having to shed her name in order to save her life: “Nothing much has happened, except a small, seismic mental shift. The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us—but it is a gap into which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters.”

Each of us has the privilege of ‘saying the name' of all those with whom we interact, especially our children.  It's a simple, but effective — and benevolent — means of helping others dare to dream.

Contact Us

Fill out this form and we will follow up to create a customized plan to help you build a smart growth organization.

Media & Press Inquiries

including requesting Whitney as a guest on your podcast

Media & Press Inquiries arrow_forward

Gain insight into growth, adaptability and agility

Download our free resources outlining the Accelerants of Growth—including books, podcasts and TEDtalks to help you move up your S Curve of Learning.