Three ways women can negotiate a better deal for themselves in business

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This International Women's Day, Kathleen O'Connor advises women how to use their skills to negotiate

Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In kick-started a public conversation about why women are woefully underrepresented in the corridors of power and what can be done to fix this. The book’s success highlights the obvious demand for ways to fix the problem – both within the organisations women work for, as well as from women themselves.

As a researcher who studies how people negotiate and network I increasingly find myself speaking to professional women inspired by Sandberg’s call to action. I urge women to use their skills to negotiate better deals for themselves, their teams, and their divisions, and to deliberately build networks they can use to become more valuable partners in the business while also achieving personal success.

For some women the prospect of either networking or negotiating can feel inauthentic. Others fear their efforts will be met with a loud and unpleasant ‘no’. So how can they boost their chances of success?

1. Manage your networks deliberately

Each of us has a network: a set of relationships, some strong and others weak. Our strong relationships are deep and trusting, providing us with support when we need it. Other relationships – with acquaintances or with people we speak to infrequently – are considered weaker.

However, these weaker ties are critical for connecting us with helpful resources – expertise, advice and information about opportunities. For example, a woman who is keen to meet a senior manager whom she would like to have as her mentor. She could reach out to the executive directly and request a meeting, or she could reflect on her network and ask a colleague who knows the senior manager to make an introduction. Her network extends her reach. Used thoughtfully it can boost the odds of getting what she needs.

Technology has taken some of the effort out of network building. LinkedIn and Facebook make it easier than ever to connect with dormant weak ties. If building a network feels inauthentic it helps to focus on what you can give, for example your time or expertise, rather than on what you need.

2. Take an effective approach towards negotiating

The ‘SHIFT’ acronym can help both men and women become more effective negotiators:

  • Separate interests from positions
  • Hear the other side
  • Invest in the relationship
  • Frame the negotiation as a problem to be solved
  • Think creatively about solutions

But the advice to women cannot stop there. Studies show that women who use the same goal-directed and self-interested tactics as men are punished by their counterparts at the negotiating table. Women do better when they take a communal approach in their negotiations, explicitly linking their requests with the benefits to their negotiating partner and the business more broadly.

3. Hear ‘no’ as ‘not yet’

Despite all this advice, fear of having requests rejected can prevent women from taking the initiative. In their book Women Don’t Ask Linda Babcock and Sarah Levascher argue that hearing ‘no’ may be especially difficult for women, and could be a barrier to asking at all.

One way around this is to reframe a no as a ‘not yet', and remain hopeful that the answer could change.

Kathleen O’Connor is associate professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, visiting from the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University

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