Common wisdom has it that negotiating is a little like going into battle.
Negotiation in business has traditionally been seen as akin to a tournament: a game of winners and losers, in which the victor emerges triumphant at the expense of the loser, who’s left out of options or power.
But this framing might not be optimal, says Darden Professor Allison Elias. Women can advance their careers with more relational and creative strategies that are geared to the building of long-term collaboration and trust. This could be very good news for women in business, as it plays better to what are considered to be female “strengths.”
Relational Capital and Collaborative Problem-Solving
“For leaders who care about things like professional network and reputation within their organization or industry, there’s a great deal to be said for building 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,” says Elias.
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, says Elias. This is a discussion that she brings to the module on negotiation she teaches in the Darden Women in Leadership Program.
“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 see that there’s strength in the more communal way that women typically think about doing business,” she says.
Prioritizing what the other party wants or needs isn’t simply “nice,” it can create more value for both parties in the longer term, Elias says, so long as negotiators also keep their own priorities top of mind and clearly articulate what they want. To that end, she has studied some of the most compelling new research and thinking on negotiation and gender1 and devised a raft of recommendations for women in leadership — techniques and tips that can help one negotiate everything from a job offer to the day-to-day exigencies of corporate life.
- Shift from win-lose to win-win. Start by purposefully reframing what negotiation means to you, says Elias. 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.
- 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 in particular can make any negotiator more prone to accepting suboptimal options.2 What helps here is to understand that negotiation is a competency that can be learned and developed, just like any other, says Elias. She recommends women 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.
- 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.3 On top of this, when women do stand up for their own abilities assertively, they can be prone to certain biases against likability.4 To counter this kind of backlash and to bolster feelings of power and assertiveness in the negotiation setting, Elias recommends crafting 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, she says, but ask strategically.
- “Shape” the conversation. Research also shows that women who secure leadership positions typically use “bending” or “shaping” strategies in career advancement.5 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 as a way to help improve or streamline operations. Be sure to think through and articulate the benefits to you, to your team and to your wider organization, says Elias.
- 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 organization, 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 there 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 organization.
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, says Elias.
“The challenge to women in leadership is to revise this narrative,” she says, “and to think more creatively about how they can use negotiation to forge more fruitful relationships that yield better outcomes for us all.”
The preceding is drawn from Women in Leadership, a white paper featuring evidence-backed techniques and tools that leaders can leverage to reconfigure the playing field — for themselves and others
- 1For example: Laura J. Kray and Jessica A. Kennedy, “Changing the Narrative: Women as Negotiators and Leaders,” California Management Review 60, No.1 (September 2017): 70–87, https://doi.org/10.1177/0008125617727744. Hannah Riley Bowles, Bobbi Thomason and Julia B. Bear, “Reconceptualizing What and How Women Negotiate for Career Advancement. Academy of Management Journal, 62, No. 6 (2019): 1645–1671, https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2017.1497. Hannah Riley Bowles, Bobbie Thomason and Inmaculada Macias-Alonso, “When Gender Matters in Organizational Negotiations,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 9 (January 2022): 199-223, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012420-055523.
- 2Alison Wood Brooks and Maurice E. Schweitzer, “Can Nervous Nelly Negotiate? How Anxiety Causes Negotiators to Make Low First Offers, Exit Early and Earn Less Profit,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 115, No. 1 (May 2011): 43–54, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2011.01.008.
- 3Emily T. Amanatullah and Michael W. Morris, “Negotiating Gender Roles: Gender Differences in Assertive Negotiating Are Mediated by Women’s Fear of Backlash and Attenuated When Negotiating on Behalf of Others,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, No. 2 (2010): 256–267.
- 4Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock and Lei Lai, “Social Incentives for Gender Differences in the Propensity to Initiate Negotiations: Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103, No. 1 (2007): 84–103, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.09.001.
- 5Bowles, Thomason and Bear, “Reconceptualizing What and How Women Negotiate for Career Advancement.”