My Blog

By Helen Jamieson

Negotiating your way to success

28 August

Whilst doing some public speaking recently I asked the audience to raise their hands if they felt they were confident negotiators. Out of more than 100 people, only one raised their hand. There was also a half hand raised which presumably means they were okay at negotiating, but didn’t like to brag about it!

So that’s just 1.5% who felt confident to negotiate…. in a world where opportunities to negotiate occur on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

In some groups having such a low proportion of negotiators might not be such a problem, but in this instance, all these people were high achieving students in an ambitious school, and therefore many from this group will become our leaders of the future.

This result didn’t surprise me as I have done the same exercise with a number of groups over the past few years and the responses are usually very similar.


You might question why there are so few who say they are confident to negotiate. Well, if I told you that virtually all of my audiences of either female students or women in business, might that go some way to explaining?

My instinct is that if I asked the same question of a group of male students or men in business, so many hands would shoot in the air we would be in danger of creating wind turbulence!

So why the lack of hands from the women? I think there are several options here…

  • If you start from the premise that successful negotiating is a skill that can be learnt, rather than a trait we are born with, then you might assume that boys and then young men are being given experience, both on and off the job (i.e. in work and life) of negotiating, whereas girls and women are not.
  • Or you could assume that when an opportunity to negotiate presents itself to a group of children, either the boys, rather than the girls, tend to step forward to do the negotiation, or the girls physically step back to avoid having to do it. Whichever way, this inevitably results over time in the girls never building up their skill and confidence.
  • As an alternative, you might say that negotiation is a skill set more associated with men than women and boys than girls, therefore girls and women are not being actively encouraged by their families, teachers or managers to develop these skills. You might even find some who would say they have been actively discouraged from negotiating due to a pervasive belief they will not be as good as their male counterparts.
  • As a final option, it might be that girls and women themselves view negotiating as creating conflict and damaging to relationships, therefore developing negotiation skills is actually seen as undesirable.

I am sure you will have some thoughts of your own and I would of course be interested if anyone has seen any specific research into this.

But whatever the reasons for women not negotiating, opportunities to negotiate in life are everywhere – from the car and house purchase to the workstation away from the air conditioning down-draft!

In Linda Babcock’s book “Women Don’t Ask” she suggests that only 7% of women think to ask for more money when landing their first job, in stark contrast to 57% of men who do. But who talks to young women about the potential for lost earnings across their career if they don’t negotiate from day one? No-one as far as I am aware and many women are not even aware they are lagging so far behind the men from such an early point in their career.

In 2008 the Carnegie Mellon University said that women ask for raises or promotions 85% less often than their male counterparts, that women on average ask for 30% less salary than their male counterparts and that 20% of women never negotiate at all, even when they recognise that it is appropriate and necessary.

But if you challenge many women on this, you might find women sticking with the oft rolled out reply of ‘I prefer to be promoted on merit, not because I was pushy’ or ‘my boss will give me a raise when he/she recognises my value and contribution’. Isn’t it time someone challenged these female assumptions about how promotions and pay rises come about in business and educate women better about how they are losing out? And alongside those challenges of course, provide specific opportunities for women to develop the confidence, assertiveness, communication or negotiation skills that can hold them back?

The Gap Partnership, a specialist negotiation company operating around the globe, has seen evidence of the distinctions between men and women when it comes to running their negotiation capability workshops. They report that in 1-2-1 sessions at the end of their courses some female delegates speak about needing to ‘act like a man’ to be able to negotiate, or that their boss assumes they wont be ‘tough enough’ to settle that difficult deal. But it can be astounding how much confidence can be built with the right support and training.

Research used by The Gap Partnership suggests that the cost to the UK economy of poor negotiation skills is £75Bn. Can you even get your head around that figure? But when calculating the cost of poor negotiation skills to your organisation, here are a few things to consider:

  • The costs of failing to negotiate discounts from all your suppliers – not just the large ones.
  • The costs resulting from not negotiating with clients to achieve contract terms that suit your business needs.
  • The cost of losing a talented member of staff because they got disgruntled due to lack of promotion or pay rise – despite them not having negotiated for one.
  • The cost of having to recruit external candidates into senior levels due to your more junior staff not being skilled enough to negotiate their way up the ladder.
  • The cost of having someone off for 3 months with stress caused by them not being able to say ‘no’ to colleagues, when in fact they should have the skills and confidence to push back and negotiate deadlines or workload.

I am not an advocate of women adopting male behavioural traits in order to succeed in business, but I am passionate about women not being held back by a lack of skill that they are not even aware holds them back. I am also passionate about businesses not losing out on opportunities with both staff and profit, due to a lack of awareness of what is impacting.

So how about doing a skills audit of your most talented employees to assess their level of skill in this area and to identify if there are opportunities being lost? It won’t cost much time or money to do, but could turn out to be a really useful exercise and will really help you understand what priorities you have in respect of developing negotiation skills in your business.

Thoughts or opinions on this blog? We would love to hear them!

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