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Can You Go Back to the Negotiating Table After a ‘No’?

Businessmen Shake HandsBusinessmen Shake Hands

Dear Annie: I’m thinking of talking to my team leader about a 5% raise, even though he already told me I’m only getting a 3% increase. I believe I’m worth more, for a couple of reasons, but I didn’t get a chance to explain the first time we discussed this. Here’s what happened: My boss and I went out for lunch, as we do pretty often, usually just to hang out. This time, however, he caught me totally off guard by giving me my annual salary review right there in the restaurant, and telling me that, while he likes my work a lot, everyone on our team is getting a 3% raise. I wasn’t expecting to have to make my case for more money during what I thought was purely a social occasion, so I was kind of speechless. I’d like to bring up the subject of a bigger-than-3% raise — needless to say, I’d be much better prepared this time — but how should I approach it? Any suggestions? — Not Done Talking

Dear Not Done: It was pretty unprofessional — not to say sneaky — of your boss to spring this on you over lunch. But yes, you certainly can revisit the issue of your pay, in a more appropriate setting this time (the office, for instance). The first thing you have to do is try to find out why you’re getting the same 3% raise as your peers. You think it’s because you weren’t ready to present your case for why you’re worth more. But are you sure?

“If you go in assuming that your lack of preparation was the reason, you’ll address that,” says Deepak Malhotra. “But what if the real issue is something else?” A professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, Malhotra teaches MBA courses in negotiation. He also wrote a fascinating new book called Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts. In his experience, the biggest mistake many negotiators make is “not grasping how the other side sees the situation. Never underestimate the value of asking more questions.”

By Malhotra’s lights, negotiations should never end with a “no.” He’s often heard people say that a deal fell apart, or a bargaining session reached an impasse, but afterward they have no idea why. “That shouldn’t happen,” he says. “You need to get to either a ‘yes’ or, failing that, a reason why not, so you know what to address in future negotiations.”

So, especially since you seem to be on friendly terms with him, ask your boss why he’s planning to give you the same 3% raise as your teammates (even though he likes your work “a lot”). By all means, present your explanation for why you believe you’re worth more. “It’s not about what you want,” says Malhotra. “It’s about telling a compelling story showing why you deserve what you’re asking for.”

But don’t be surprised if your boss still says no. However impressive your argument, he may not have more than 3% in the budget, for instance. “Sometimes people’s hands really are tied,” notes Malhotra. That does not, however, mean it’s time to stop negotiating. “What’s not possible today may be possible tomorrow, or in six months, or a year,” he points out. “Ask what it will take to get you from where you are now to where you want to be.”

Let’s say your team’s budget right now limits everyone’s raises to 3%. You could request another salary review sooner than it would otherwise be scheduled, Malhotra suggests, to see if the financial situation has changed; or propose a year-end performance bonus with targets agreed upon in advance. Another option is to make a list of what else besides money would make you feel less undervalued — an extra week of vacation, for example, or the chance to telecommute.

“Broaden the discussion to look at other kinds of rewards that may be more feasible than a bigger raise right now,” Malhotra says. “Be as flexible as you can.” One of the immutable rules of successful negotiating, he adds, is that “the more different currencies you accept as payment, the more likely you are to get paid.”

One more thing: Be nice. Commonsensical as that may sound, in the heat of a negotiation, it’s easy to lose your cool, and your sense of proportion. But in any bargaining session, the other side is much more likely to give you what you want — or, at least, to work harder toward a compromise you can live with — if they like you than if they think you’re an arrogant jerk. “Getting angry or being confrontational just gets in the way,” notes Malhotra. In other words, you know that old saw about honey catching more flies than vinegar? The savviest negotiators keep it in mind.

Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever negotiated for something at work after you’d already been turned down? How did it work out? Leave a comment below.

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