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The Power of Language: Why Words Matter when we Negotiate

Negotiation is a complex process, influenced by a variety of factors, including gender. While men and women may negotiate for similar things, such as salary, promotions, responsibilities or special projects, they often do so in different ways that reflect social norms, gendered expectations, and cultural differences.

In North American society, women are often socialized to communicate in ways that emphasize politeness, empathy, and rapport-building. From a young age, girls are often taught to be "nice" and prioritize harmonious relationships over assertiveness and self-promotion.

This learned communication style can be interpreted as more tentative and indirect in comparison to that of men, and may encompass the use of ambiguous words, an indecisive tone, and even an apology. Consider Selma's request for assistance from her co-worker Liam:

"I am sorry to bother you Liam, I was just wondering if you could possibly help me out with this report if it's not too much trouble?" instead of "Liam, can you help me with this report?" - a request more apt to be made by a man.

While these differences in statements may at first appear innocuous, they actually have profound implications for how we are perceived and evaluated in the workplace and other settings. Women who communicate in a more tentative or indirect manner may be regarded as less competent or less deserving of leadership positions. Or, when she negotiates for a higher salary she may be viewed as less likeable, competent, and more demanding than her fellow male colleague who negotiated for the very same increase. This bias is often driven by stereotypes that associate women with communal traits, such as empathy and collaboration. So, when women advocate for themselves by negotiating assertively for higher pay, they may be perceived as violating gender norms and face backlash. In contrast, men who negotiate for higher salaries are likely to be viewed positively and even receive the increase in pay because, after all, they are expected to negotiate!

By the way - it may surprise you to learn that women penalize other women for negotiating. A woman who negotiates for herself violates gender norms. The norms that WE all have been taught from a very young age. These norms influence all of us - not just men. And before you write to tell me that things have changed and this is a reflection of a different generation - sadly you are mistaken. These biases run so very deep and continue to plague younger generations.

Change my friends, happens ever so slowly.

So what are women to do?

Research the market: Before starting negotiations, it is important to do your research and understand the salary and benefit range for the position. This will help to set realistic expectations and provide legitimacy for your ask. Pro-tip: This data should increase your confidence because there is a justifiable benchmark for your request.

Emphasize your value: During the negotiation, emphasize your value to the organization and highlight your qualifications, experience, and achievements. This will help to build credibility and demonstrate why you deserve a competitive offer.

Make sure you conduct an Accomplishment Audit every year so that you have evidence as to why you are deserving of your ask. If you don't have one - feel free to use the one I created for my students.

Pay attention to how you frame your ask. Let's look at how Sheila formulates her request for an increase in salary and the important components of a positive frame.

"I appreciate the opportunity to discuss my compensation. I have been working hard to contribute to the success of the company and have exceeded my sales goals over the past year. In the last quarter alone, I generated over $1 million dollars in new business, contributing significantly to the company's bottom line. In light of these accomplishments, I would like my compensation to better reflect my contributions to the firm. I have researched comparable salaries in the industry and believe that my current compensation does not reflect my achievements. Therefore, I am requesting a salary increase to [specific number or range]. I am confident that with a fair and equitable compensation package, I can continue to contribute to the growth and success of our organization."

In this statement, Sheila frames her request as an opportunity to further contribute to the organization's success.

She emphasizes her hard work and high performance, and positions the salary increase as a way to align her compensation with her value to the organization.

Third, she cites external evidence, such as market rates, to support the salary request which frames her ask as legitimate.

Fourth, the positive frame and future orientation, emphasize her commitment to the organization and her desire to grow and succeed in her role. It focuses on the benefits that the salary increase would afford her and the organization, rather than her needs or desires alone.

These tips can also be used by men. They are good negotiation strategies for everyone - but particularly important for women. And for some cultures, such as the Indian culture, negotiating in this way is much more aligned with one's culture values as the message emphasizes both the needs of the individual and the organization, not just the desires of the person.

Gender Bias in Negotiations

Gender bias in negotiations is a pervasive problem that undermines fairness and equality in the workplace. Research has shown that women are often penalized for negotiating assertively, while men who negotiate for the same things are rewarded.

It is essential that we recognize and address this bias, by creating a more equitable and inclusive negotiation environment. This requires a commitment to educating employers, managers, and negotiators on the impact of gender bias in negotiations, as well as providing training and resources to help women develop effective negotiation strategies and build confidence.

While I use the terms male/female dichotomy in this article, it is important to understand that regardless of how you identify, it is likely that you fall into one of two general categories of communicators.

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June 21, 2023 from 7:00 to 8:30 pm.

To your negotiation success!

Dr. Gill



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