One of the myriad ways in which our childhood negotiation skills are blunted as we grow up is the life lesson that we’re not always going to get what we want. While that’s sound advice and true, in negotiation terms it tends to form unnecessary and bad habits when it comes to how we respond to the other party saying “no” – the tendency to assume it’s because we’ve asked for too much, or offered too little, can become automatic. That means we trade value before or instead of exploring alternative possibilities as to why the other party might have turned our proposal down.
I was recently at a friend’s significant birthday bash, and it brought to mind a memory of how this manifests itself in the real world. My friend had spent a few years in Australia in the late ‘90s, and it being a pre-Zoom world with dial-up internet, had not had the opportunity to secure employment in advance of her move down under. Despite numerous conversations with Australian embassy staff, no solution to this dilemma had arisen, and she had therefore found herself interviewing for full-time work whilst on a tourist visa – a less than ideal situation. However, her CV was excellent – blue-chip, global companies, a history of achievement and even an award or two – so the interest from potential employers was keen. Offers, however, were drier than a dingo’s nose on a hot outback afternoon. My friend was seriously considering whether she ought to dramatically lower her salary expectations in order to change this situation, although she was baffled as the feedback she had been getting was entirely positive. It was the absence of job offers – the rejection of her proposals – that was the problem. We were in touch via email during this period, and I got in touch with an old friend and colleague who’d ended up in a senior HR position in Melbourne, to explain the situation and see whether any useful insights might be forthcoming. My HR friend explained that the obvious blocker was the visa situation. Potential employers were terrified that my friend – having an exemplary CV, great experience and highly marketable capabilities – would use them to get a change of visa status, before moving on to a better paid position elsewhere, leaving them with various liabilities and costs around the need to re-apply for the right visa. Aussies are generally more direct than their British counterparts, but even so, there was a reluctance to share this rather accusatory information with my friend.
I contacted my friend and suggested that she gently probe this objection when the opportunity next came up – and indeed, she was told that “this has happened before” more than once. So the problem wasn’t that she was asking too much – far from it. We quickly realised that the amount in the proposal wasn’t the issue, but how it was structured – a packaging question, rather than a bargaining one. My friend came up with a creative solution whereby she proposed that any cost involved in changing visa status would be amortised over her first 18 months of employment, and if she left for any reason before the end of that period, she would owe the employer the balance remaining. For her, this concession was easy (she knew the probability of leaving for any reason was slim as she had done her research on the potential employers) but crucially, she valued it based on the employer’s perspective. Within a week of repackaging her proposals to employers, she had three strong offers, and even took a call from the CFO of one to say how pleased they were to be able to offer a key role to somebody who clearly understood negotiation so well (a smart move – she spent a number of successful years with that employer).
“Cakeism” can be seen as a generally derogatory term, denoting entitlement and privilege – but to a skilled negotiator, it’s a habit to establish whether the cake simply needs to be sliced differently, before assuming that it’s the size of the cake that’s the obstacle.