In their several years of working together, Jin-Yung had never really negotiated with her manager. She would simply say yes even if it threw her life into temporary turmoil, as it often did. She had given unknowable hours to executing every request and task, diligently delivering them in neat and complete packages, no matter the sacrifice.
After attending a workshop I was teaching on “essentialism,” or the disciplined pursuit of less, she decided to create a social contract to draw some boundaries at work. Specifically, it outlined how she could increase her productivity at work while also having five days off of work to focus entirely on preparing for her upcoming wedding. Jin-Yung’s manager agreed to the terms she presented and was surprised and delighted when she put in several especially-focused days and completed her usual work ahead of schedule. This allowed Jin-Yung the chance to immerse herself in the uninterrupted days of wedding planning that her boss had agreed to.
However, in the midst of her wedding planning, her manager asked her to take on an additional project prior to an upcoming board meeting because someone else on the team had dropped the ball. This time, instead of capitulating to pressure from her manager, she pointed to the social contract and said words to the effect, “I would love to help with this project and I can see that this is a problem. However, we came to a clear agreement on this and I have completed my side of the bargain. I have planned for this time, I have worked hard for it and I deserve to have it…guilt-free!” She then spent five days immersed in preparing for her big day.
At first, her boss was fuming. But after laboring over the task herself for days, she saw all sorts of flaws in the way she’d been managing the team. She soon realized that if she wanted to be a more effective manager, she needed to pull in the reins, and get clear with each member of the team about expectations, accountability, and outcomes: basically to set up a social contract with every member of the team. Jin-Yung not only opened her manager’s eyes to unhealthy team dynamics and opened up a space for change, she did it in a way that earned her respect.
Jin-Yung was so affected by this experience that she decided to incorporate the experience into her vows, promising that she would prioritize her relationship with her husband above all others.
Many of us are faced with similar high-stakes negotiations with our managers when we want a raise, a stretch assignment, flex time, or the ability to work from home. Here are three rules for negotiating for what you need more effectively:
Rule 1: You can’t negotiate if you don’t know what you want.
It never ceases to amaze me how often I ask people, “What do you really want?” and they look at me blankly, unable to articulate the answer. It’s not that they don’t want things, it’s just that they don’t have a high level of clarity regarding the matter.
This matters because our work life doesn’t take place in a neutral vacuum. What we spend our time doing is the result of a dynamic interaction between internal clarity (what we want to do) and external pressure (what other people want us to do). Indeed, our era is distinguished not so much by information overload, but by opinion overload. To ensure that our own voice is not lost in the noise around us, we need to know what we really want. If we don’t get really clear about that, then other people will fill the void with their agendas.
Rule 2: Clarity is the beginning of all empowerment.
Key to Jin-Yung’s story was creating a social contract which clearly articulated what she would do, by when, and what the positive and negative consequences would be for compliance and noncompliance. By getting clear about this, she was able to better negotiate what not to focus on both before her five-day leave and while she was on it.
Here are the six most important questions to answer when writing out a social contract:
- What is the most important, mutually beneficial, desired result over the next X period of time?
- Why is this important?
- What needs to be eliminated, deferred or reduced?
- What resources need to be reallocated or increased?
- When will we get together to review progress?
- What are the consequences (positive or negative) for performance or nonperformance?
Rule 3: Speak in terms of your manager’s agenda (not your own).
Especially when working with busy executives, there is little point in simply talking about what you want. They are often so focused and burdened with their own agenda that an additional request, however valid, can feel like an additional pressure or a burden. With a little preparation, you can express the same desires in a way that is aligned with your manager’s agenda, thus significantly increasing the chance that you will be heard and that the negotiation will go well, as shown in the chart below.
None of these examples is perfect, but each illustrates how much better it is to start with your manager’s agenda. The truth is that to get anyone to act, we have to create an eager desire in the other person by speaking to what he or she wants most.
By following these three rules, we can be better negotiators at work, we can make that critical shift from “order taker” to “trusted advisor,” and we can learn to better balance our lives.