To Ask or Not to Ask

By Nivi Jaswal
Nivi Jaswal is a social entrepreneur based in the United States. With 14 years of international branding, marketing & research experience in the consumer goods and healthcare industries across Asia-Pacific, Africa, Middle East and Eastern Europe, Nivi is passionate about brand purpose, community building, behavior change, women’s empowerment & impact of gender-identity at work – ranging from the corporation to the rural artisan level.

Compassionate and Conscious Negotiation for Women in the World of Work!

Anita, fresh out of a business school and only a few months into her first real job, was wondering, “what salary would they have offered to that guy from another campus”, as her cup of coffee brewed at the office coffee machine. While she poured her coffee, her co-worker Sheila walked away with a cup of coffee wondering about another question, “I was gone for a few months on maternity leave and they had told me I would get the project lead role…but … now I don’t really know!”

Sounds familiar? Or, remember somebody who has faced this dilemma? And, no, women are not always at the raw end of the proverbial stick; sometimes men, too, are. Still, an unfortunate but real and well-researched fact remains that women in the ‘world of work’ tend to be more vulnerable.

The book, “Women Don’t Ask” (a highly recommended read) emphasizes this point quite well. For this book, Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever surveyed a group of fresh MBA graduates from Carnegie Mellon University, who were all set to join their first jobs. They found that female students on an average had 7.6% lower salary than the male students. If we were to extrapolate the survey findings to South Asia, where gender-dependent power-distance is higher, this salary differential might be even more unfavorable towards women.

What was even more interesting than the differential in the salary, were Babcock and Laschever’s next questions: “Who amongst these students chose to even ask questions regarding the structure and other details of the compensation on offer. And upon asking, who chose to negotiate?” The answers that the survey revealed were insightful and led to the title of their book: Women Don’t Ask! (Only 7% women compared to 57% men asked; and for these 7% women who chose to negotiate, the 7.6% salary differential ceased to exist)

Taking the findings of the book to real life, as women in any culture, we owe it to ourselves to ask a few hard questions:

Do I approach my life’s diary as a series of events where I know I can “negotiate”?

What is my view of the concept or even the term: Negotiation?

Do I (or my culture) view it as necessarily a negative, selfish, self-promoting trait? Something that is inherently “adversarial”?

Have I thought of negotiating? At work? In personal life?

If I have, what has been the outcome? Since I am a woman, have I experienced any backlash or barriers?

If I have indeed experienced a positive outcome, how can I practice the ‘Art of Negotiating’ more, and encourage other women in my life to do so as well?

Reframing ‘Negotiation’ is the key to answering some of the questions above. One way to approach negotiation is as an opportunity to “solve problems where both parties present their logic and arrive at an outcome where both parties gain, or either party is left whole and not harmed in the process”. Most successful negotiators believe in the “And-And” principle, which implies that negotiation is not a battle where one must win and the other must lose. Staying away from battlefield vocabulary definitely helps anyone who wants to practice Negotiation with Collaborative & Conscious Compassion.

Compassion is not a weak word – it is one of the most powerful weapons in the ‘world of work’ – a tool that is available to everyone and sadly, not used often enough. When we negotiate with collaborative compassion, we ASK questions to the other party and enable them to see mutual benefit. For instance, when negotiating annual work plan goals with your superior, how can you turn this into an opportunity to negotiate compassionately? After all, your goals and the rest of the team’s goals add up to the supervisor’s goals! If you achieve your target, you will help them achieve theirs. In this equation, how can you negotiate constructively, collaboratively and compassionately – versus just being thrust upon with a target that you don’t feel fully committed to. One way is to treat these goals as ‘common’. Rather than negotiating AGAINST your supervisor, negotiate WITH them to arrive at something you are comfortably challenged by (and will grow from), and something that they can fully entrust you with for the rest of the year.

If you are ’embarrassed’ to negotiate big, start SMALL. Practice compassionate negotiation at a peer level or at home. And, when you feel confident enough, bite into a bigger more profitable negotiation at work. Your negotiating skills are muscles that grow stronger when you flex them!

Finally, the most critical thing to remember is the COST of not negotiating. Life offers us personal and professional opportunities to negotiate every single day. We can choose where we negotiate and where we don’t. However, instead of letting this be an outcome of random selection, make it a conscious compassionate choice. For instance: Who will pick up the children from school after/during work? If your driver is on holiday and your husband is sick at home, compassion would lead you to your answer. However, if your driver is away and YOU are sick at home, if you don’t ASK for alternative arrangements to be made, you are not practicing self-compassion!

As women in the world of work, we often mistake our own socio-cultural conditioning to be the naturally implied law of nature and economics! When we choose neither to ask nor negotiate – we are doing a disservice not only to us, but also to the overall potential of our role in our team, our country and at a larger level, even our economy. Therefore, practicing compassion, collaborating consciously, and negotiating effectively is not just your right but also a larger duty towards women who look up to you, at any level.