"Nice" Is Not a Strategy

She Negotiates appreciates The New Yorker's recent coverage of women's negotiation challenges in Lean Out: The Dangers for Women Who Negotiate.

We're disappointed, however, that the vast majority of Lean Out is devoted to the "news" that women who negotiate face gender bias and should routinely frame their proposals as other-serving, i.e., by being "nice." 

Though a useful reference to the contentious dispute resolution tactic of ingratiation,  "nice" is not a negotiation strategy. Nor does it serve us when we need to bring an uncooperative bargaining partner back into line by rolling up a virtual newspaper and smacking him over the nose with it. Playing "tit for tat" is, after all, the Fifth Commandment for negotiating women.

The best advice is buried at the end of The New Yorker article: sit in the front of the bus. 

Let me quote journalist Maria Konnikova's exact quote in bold letters,

to suggest that women should be wary of asserting themselves in the workplace would be like telling Rosa Parks not to sit in the front of a bus. 

I know that Professors Linda Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles do teach women powerful negotiation strategies and tactics. The only strategic advice contained in reporter Maria Konnikova's article, however, is that women offer an explanation for [their] demands that gives a legitimate reason that the other side finds persuasive [that] signal[s] concern for the broader organization.

Good advice, as far as it goes, but insufficient on so many levels that the trumpeted message that we'd better not try it overwhelms the limited instruction provided. 

I've covered this issue before at Forbes in my post Must Women Negotiate Like Uncle Tom?

As I emphasized there,

We don’t see a lot of gender-specific negotiation advice for men that asks them to be more masculine. And when certain negotiation strategies or tactics are prescribed as superior – collaborative interest-based bargaining vs. competitive distributive negotiation for instance – it’s never framed as something men should do to avoid the negative effects of their gender on their character or likability.

[They should - competitive tactics too often lead to impasse and hurting stalemates]

The question I want to raise about all this women-and-negotiation research is whether we’re being told  to become Uncle Toms, shucking and jiving our way through the workplace, fawning, ingratiating, smiling, and de-meaning ourselves by pretending to be someone we’re not – girls who dissemble and wheedle rather than women who command respect and negotiate the rewards that go with it.

Women should be knowledgeable about, but not defeated by, the indisputable and well-documented fact that social sanctions are generally doled out to women who don't "act their gender." But that's true in everything we do, even when we're doing exactly what our gender dictates, breast-feeding, for instance, at the time our infants are hungry, which often means we're with them in a public place. 

Negotiation is a skill 

Negotiation is a highly sophisticated skill. It's a plan, a process, a strategy and a set of tactics. It's as difficult as, say, trying a case to a jury or arguing your brief to the judge. When I started doing that, there were very few women role models and hardly any good advice for us to avoid the then-quite-open discrimination against women attorneys in the courtroom. 

Learning to walk the razor's edge of gender bias was the least degree of difficulty in my own professional learning curve. A critical degree to be sure, but less important than mastering the art of direct and cross-examination, persuasive speaking, strategic litigation tactics, the intricacies of my clients' business ventures and even (horrors! for this Lit Major!) finance and statistical analysis.

Sure, we faced gender bias, but it would have been no advice at all to tell us, as the academics instruct, to "signal concern for the broader [community]: ‘It’s not just good for me; it’s good for you.’"

The first critical step, ladies, is to learn your trade.

That means mastering the art of negotiation because every day you devote yourself to a business or professional enterprise, you are negotiating whether you know it or not.

What do you negotiate?

You negotiate alliances that will support your request for access to clients or better human resources. You negotiate sponsorship from people with the ability to push your candidacy for the C-suite or partner's office.

You negotiate bonuses, origination credit, seats on career-enhancing committees, and, when you need it, time off to have a child before coming back to the office without penalty for your unsung and unrewarded service to the procreation and nurturance of the human race.

We've got free resources and paid courses. We've got free webinars and podcasts littered around the internet. We have checklists and study guides, book recommendations and opportunities to practice this necessary skill.

Please, please, please do not be discouraged from negotiating on your own behalf because you keep reading warnings from the same people repeating the same pessimistic cautionary tales about women who take the rare moment out of their other-serving duties to self-serve. 

Follow us here. We tell you how to do it and get the outcomes you want. It's not rocket science. It's what women do best - having conversations that lead to agreement.

Fail early and fail often; then negotiate your dreams.