10 Mistakes to Avoid When Negotiating a Raise

Contrary to what you might think, the trick to negotiating a salary increase—or any kind of deal—is not to seek consensus but to say no. Read on to find out why “no” is the most powerful word in negotiations.

Every day, at work and at home, you are involved in dozens of negotiations, big and small. Many people find negotiation difficult because of their desire to please, to come to an agreement, to compromise. We have been taught that win-win is the best possible result, that we need to “get to yes” so that all sides are happy. That’s the biggest mistake you can make in negotiations.

The problem with the consensus-based approach to negotiating is that it will get you killed at the deal-making table. Why? Because if you’re focused on making another person happy—or on avoiding making that person mad—then you’re focusing on the outcome. You can’t control the outcome. You can’t control how the other person feels about you. However, you can control your actions and behavior during the negotiation. That’s the essence of what I call Systematic Decision-Based Negotiating, or the No System, for short. The No System teaches negotiators to base each action not on emotions but on what has come before in the conversation and what they can control.

Why do I call it the No System? Because no is the best word in a negotiation. If you invite your respected adversary (in this case, your boss) to say no right from the get-go, you will be amazed at how relaxed she becomes during the discussion. If your boss says no to your requests right from the start, that’s OK too. Every toddler in the world knows that no is the beginning of a negotiation, not the end of it. Inviting no, hearing no and even saying no yourself can open up the conversation for real give-and-take. That’s what negotiation is all about.

The No System teaches ordinary people how to be formidable negotiators. Once you understand the basic principles of the No System, you’ll see that they’re applicable in any setting and under any circumstance—whether you’re trying to get a new job, a raise or promotion, extend a project deadline, or get a colleague in another department to share staff. The next time you’re involved in an important negotiation, forget about consensus-building and the outcome for the moment and avoid making the following 10 most common mistakes in negotiations. Heeding these simple dos and don’ts will make your deals much more effective.

1. Don’t tell your employer you hope she’ll say yes. Instead, start by inviting your boss to say no. Tell her you’re comfortable with a no answer and that you want her to be comfortable saying no. This puts her at ease and clears the air. Watch how her ears perk up and her body language relaxes. OK, she’s thinking, I have permission to say no. Now let’s hear what this employee has to say.

Let me be very clear here: The no principle is not about intransigence. On the contrary, it’s about openness and honesty. The invitation to say no tells your boss that you’re an adult and you’re capable of talking rationally with her. No allows everyone involved to put away the need to be right, to be the smartest, strongest and toughest. It prevents you from making weak, and worse—bad—decisions because of your need to feel safe and secure and liked by the other side. No says to everyone at the table, “Let’s bury any rush to judgment born of the getting-to-yes mentality.” No says, “Relax, I’m not trying to fleece you, and you’re not about to fleece me.”

2. Don’t be emotional. Turn your mind into a blank slate. Quash your expectations, hopes or fears. Above all, overcome all neediness, the number-one deal-killer. Not needing this raise or promotion gives you power. Successful negotiation of any sort requires that you understand this fact and use it. Your overriding task as a negotiator is to replace compromise- and fear-based negotiating with decision-based negotiating. You must learn to progress from raw, unexamined emotions, which never produce good agreements, to the careful decisions that eventually do. If you can learn to keep your mind clear of any emotions and instead concentrate fully on what your boss is saying, how she is saying it, what you are asking and how you are asking it, you will be way ahead of the game.

3. Don’t go into the meeting unprepared. Research what people in your position get paid. Check out job and career sites that list salary information, such as Salary.com, which gives you a range of salaries in your field and zip code for free. Visit association or industry websites for salary surveys. Search for trade publications, which often run their own salary information. Or just type “salary information” and “salary guides” into a search engine.

Next, do some research about your own company to see if you can identify possible obstacles that may stand in your way. Obstacles may include a recent layoff or any kind of cost-cutting measure. If you do identify barriers, let your boss know that you are aware of these challenges and ask her how you might play a role in solving some of the problems.

4. Don’t try to impress your boss. Never dress to impress, brag or be pretentious. Let your boss feel completely at ease with you—perhaps even a bit superior. I call this The Columbo Effect. The technique of disarming one’s opponent worked for the TV detective because people in negotiations tend to make quick assumptions about the people with whom they’re dealing. They let their emotions (for example, their arrogance) get in the way, which puts them at a disadvantage and gives you the edge. Also, if you are trying to impress your boss, then your own emotions (such as neediness, fear) are getting in the way, and you will not be focusing on your language and behavior—the things you can control in the meeting.

5. Don’t give a presentation. Talk as little as possible. Ask your employer a lot of questions so you can find out her position, issues, concerns, needs and objectives. In a presentation, you would be trying to impress and you would be making assumptions about what you think your respected opponent wants to hear. How do you know what she wants to hear? You don’t. That’s why, if you’re going to stay focused on facts and sound decision making, you need to ask her a lot of questions. Her answers will build a vision of what she wants. Then you can tailor your response to fill her needs and she will eventually see that you can help her achieve that vision.

6. Don’t ask yes/no questions. Get your employer to spill the beans by beginning all of your questions with an interrogative—who, what, when, where, how or why. For example, ask your boss where she sees your position going in the future. How would she like to see your department develop? What are some of the biggest challenges she anticipates in terms of talent development? Her answers to these questions will help you tailor your argument for a raise.

7. Don’t try to close the deal. Don’t think about, hope for or plan on getting the raise. Focus instead on what you can control: your behavior during the negotiation. If you are focused on getting your employer to say yes to your raise, then you’re not focused on what she’s saying to you in the moment. If your heart is beating fast because you feel things aren’t going your way—or the opposite, you’re starting to get excited because she seems to be coming around—you will wear your emotions on your face. Your boss will start to feel your neediness, and like a predator that sees a crippled antelope at the edge of the herd, she will come in for the kill because she knows you really, really want this. Trying to close the deal can kill your chances of not only getting a raise but perhaps of getting a really stupendous one.

8. Don’t believe that your mission is to get more money. Your mission and purpose in this conversation is to fulfill your employer’s business needs and objectives. Every decision you make in the negotiation process should be focused on helping your employer see that giving you a raise or promotion will further her business interests. For example, if you have found out through your research and in the course of your conversation with your boss that she is concerned about the management challenges related to outsourcing, you can explain how your expertise in the areas of, say, knowledge sharing or running IT as a separate business within a business will help her with those challenges. Suddenly you become the solution to her problems, and she sees you as being on the same page with her, addressing the same problems.

9. Don’t present your current salary/position as a problem. If you begin the conversation with a litany of complaints—you can’t support your family on what you’re making; you’ve been working for three years without a significant raise; the cost of living in your area has gone way up—you are not being emotionally neutral and your boss will immediately start making assumptions about you and your attitude. Instead of presenting your current salary woes as a problem, present yourself as a solution to a number of the company’s current and future challenges. Your boss will come to see that she can’t afford not to give you a raise.

10. Don’t give an ultimatum. Never threaten or posture with another offer or a take-it-or-leave-it stance. Don’t put your boss on the defensive. Put her at ease. Use a calm slow voice and negotiate without any need. You may want a raise, but you’ll benefit yourself more by having the attitude that you don’t need it. Treat the negotiation as a conversation in which you are interested in hearing about her problems so that you can solve them. Understanding the difference between want and need will give you the edge in any negotiation. You will be amazed at how your spoken and implied invitation to her to say no will help her give you what you want.

Being calm, staying in the moment, controlling your emotions, asking pointed questions and listening carefully to your boss’s responses will help you stay focused on what you can control in any negotiationyour behavior and actions. The above tips will help you avoid the worst mistakes most amateur negotiators make, and you’ll be more likely to get the best possible deal in your next negotiation.

Jim Camp is a negotiation coach and trainer and the author of NO: The Only Negotiating Strategy You Need for Work and Home (Crown), the revised and updated version of his critically acclaimed business book, Start with No. As president and founder of The Jim Camp Group, he has coached individuals, companies, and governments worldwide through hundreds of negotiations. His clients include Motorola, Texas Instruments, Merrill Lynch, IBM and Prudential Insurance.

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