When managers negotiate in organizations, with their bosses or colleagues, they do so in the context of how (or whether) they have negotiated before. They fall back into the roles they’ve traditionally played, and their counterparts expect that they will act as they have in the past.
In the leadership development programs that we run with for female executives at leading corporations, we use the term “Velcro” to describe these patterns of behavior, because like the sticky fabric, they can lock people into a weaker negotiating position that undermines their career growth and success.
Velcro can take many forms. Some of the women describe being stuck in the informal role of great producer, someone who is willing to take on ever more work even if it’s no longer relevant to their current position. Others have reputations as fixers, enlisted to clean up problems but without ever getting full credit for this work. Others are known as team players, who do whatever is asked of them for the good of the group, never asking if or how they will be compensated.
Recognizing one’s Velcro is the first step in breaking away from it. The second step is to know when people are giving you an “invitation to your Velcro” and responding in a way that puts you in a stronger negotiating position.
Consider a case study. Rebecca is a director in the technology division of a major financial firm. Over the past few months she spearheaded the development of a business case for a major transformation in her division and was therefore invited to apply for a VP role that would involve her overseeing the transition. When the company’s leaders appointed an outsider instead of Rebecca to the job, her boss offered her a retention bonus to prove that the firm still appreciated her work.
But Rebecca recognized this was an invitation to her team player Velcro. Her boss was expecting her to gratefully accept the bonus she’d been offered, welcoming her new boss and allowing the organization to move ahead with the transformation. This time, Rebecca wanted to break away from that role she’d always played and negotiate on her own behalf. Here’s how she did it:
She evaluated her leverage. Because Rebecca had played such a big role in conceiving the change initiative, her knowledge would be critical to the new VP. Her boss continually talked about how valuable she was and implied how much he needed her. This gave her the confidence to balk at the retention bonus.
She set the tone for the conversation. In the past, Rebecca’s immediate response to praise or a bonus offer would have been to thank him for the offer and his support. This time, to break away from her Velcro, she sat silently — a negotiation technique she’d learned in our program — then she declined the bonus.
She was clear about what she wanted. Rebecca wanted her organization to make a long-term investment in her, not a one-time pay-out — a raise, not a bonus — and told her boss exactly that. He responded with all the reasons why he couldn’t give her a raise (it had not been budgeted for, it was the wrong time of year), which was another invitation to her team player Velcro, but Rebecca resisted.
She stood firm. Rebecca knew her boss very well and anticipated that he would keep returning to the bonus — clearly expecting that he could wear her down. He offered to discuss her development, but she said she was not interested. She repeated that the bonus was only a token recognition; she wanted validation of her value. Finally, after securing the relevant approvals, her boss agreed to give her a significant raise worth more than double the value of the bonus.
When you recognize your Velcro, you understand how you have trained people to expect you to act and how to reset those expectations so you can negotiate for more compensation, credit and resources.