Saturday, April 9, 2016

career advice 3

As I've mentioned before, I've read the book "Friend & Foe" by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, and I went to see their talk too. It's an interesting book on the psychology of competition and cooperation. But some examples from it and their interpretation struck me as odd.

In particular, they have a story of Hannah Riley Bowles who got an offer for a tenured position from the Nazareth College, decided to negotiate for some better conditions, and had the offer retracted (to her surprise). Perhaps she'd followed the advice similar to Tarah Van Vleck's: "never accept the first offer". What went wrong? According to Galinsky and Schweitzer, there must be some evil afoot, it's all because she's a woman.

But is it? The whole story as described in the book strikes me as a sequence of bad decisions. I'm not the greatest expert on negotiations by far but I know a thing or two about them. For example, I've negotiated for a year about one of my jobs. For another job, I've negotiated through 3 different engagements over 6 years. And basically in the story about Hannah I see both the glaring mistakes on her part and the mistaken pre-suppositions in the narrative.

The major mistake in the narrative is that by negotiations you cannot lose ("never accept the first offer, it's always lower by 10-15% than the final offer"). It's not true. If you decide not to accept the first offer but start the negotiations, you have to be prepared that the other side would turn around and go away. It has no relation to gender, happens to everyone, and is nothing unusual. It's something you've got to be prepared to. I've had it happen on multiple occasions in my career.

If doesn't mean that you shouldn't negotiate. The negotiation of the future salary at a new place is the best way and time to raise your income, after that a 10% raise will be considered a huge one. A 10% raise did happen to me once, but again, it was a very unusual thing, and much easier achieved by negotiating at the hiring time. But you've got to place a realistic goal in front of you, what kind of raise would be worth changing the jobs, and go from there. If the offer is way below this goal, there is no point in taking it. If it's way above, you've achieved your goal, there's not much more to desire. Extra negotiation can bring extra money but can also break the whole thing. If someone offers you double the current money, it's probably reasonable to just take the offer and not risk it.

And yes, the offer of double money did happen to me but it came with a catch: it was for a 6-month contract, with a long commute and not a particularly exciting job. So it wasn't a no-brainer, it took me some thinking. In the end I've decided that if I get double the money for 6 months and then spend another 6 months looking for another job like my current one, I'd be still ahead, and I took it (and in result the things have worked out better than expected).

To give an example of when things didn't work out, let's look at that 6-year negotiation story. When I've talked to them for the first time, I went there for an interview, I've talked to the HR about what kind of money I want, and a week later I get a form letter saying that they're not interested. Well, overall fine with me (except for one point that I'll return to later), they didn't look particularly interesting anyway. When their recruiter contacted me next time, I've asked them: you people didn't like me once already, why are you calling me again? And he said, no, the technical interviews actually are marked pretty good, so it's got to be some other reason. From which I could only conclude that the money was the problem.  And then I've tried a bit different approach to find out what kind of money they had in mind, and it turned out that yes, there was a major disagreement. But the important point for Hannah's story is that they didn't make me an offer for half the money I was asking, they just turned around and went away.

Making another digression, this kind of confirms Tarah Van Vleck's advice "never name your number first". Or does it? Remember, in this case our expectations have been off by a factor of 2. If they made me an offer for half the money I thought reasonable, I wouldn't have taken it anyway, just as I didn't take when I found it out during the second engagement. By the way, yes, there are disadvantages of naming your number first but there are also are other issues, and there are some advantages too: if you overshoot their expectations by a reasonable amount, you'll have a lot easier time in defending this number in the further negotiations. If they name a number and you say "I want 10% more", they'll figure out that you're just trying to stretch it a little, and they might either stay firm or maybe settle at something like 5% more. If you name a number 20% more than they were expecting to offer, you'll probably get if not all 20% then at least 15%. And it's not just me, I've also read it in some book (Galinsky&Schweitzer's? Cialdini's? Karras's?) that the first number named sets the tone for the negotiation, which is difficult to move afterwards. It can be moved but not by 15%, if you want to make progress you've got to start with something like "this is laughable! my reasonable estimation is 50% more!" and get maybe extra 30-45%. And of course bear the risk that the other side would go away, so I'd recommend doing this only if you really do see the initial offer as laughable.

If the other side thinks that your demands are unreasonably high (or low, for the other side, and yes, I've done things like that from my side as well), they'll just go away. But of course from my standpoint the requests have been perfectly reasonable, I would not have agreed to their low-ball offer anyway, so I haven't lost anything. This is a problem only if you're bluffing.
Now turning to Hannah's mistakes. Sorry, but she led the negotiations in a very offensive way, as offensive as it can get without calling the prospective employer names.

The first major mistake was that she responded by writing of a letter with the list of requests, and in such a formal tone. Negotiation in the written form is bad, it's highly prone to cause very negative feelings in the counterparty. The good way to negotiate is over the phone.

The use of the formal tone is even worse. It's guaranteed to offend. Returning to that example above, receiving that form letter had pissed me off very much. If they simply said "No, we're not interested" or "No, we're not interested, we don't think you're good enough for us", it would have been OK. But receiving a page-long form letter in legalese created a major grudge. For a few years after that I wouldn't even talk to the their recruiters.

The right way to negotiate is on the phone, and try to keep as friendly a tone as possible. The point of negotiations is to convince the other party that your viewpoint is more reasonable, not to fight them.

This brings us to the next error, but here Hannah had no control: she had to negotiate directly with the college because the college had contacted her directly. The negotiations go much, much better when conducted through an intermediary.  An independent recruiting agent is the best intermediary, the company recruiter is the second best one. Negotiating directly with the hiring manager, as Hannah essentially did, is fraught with peril. The recruiters are the professional negotiators, they understand how the negotiations work, and transfer the information between two parties while maintaining friendliness on both sides. You can talk more bluntly to them, and when the message reaches the other side, it will become formatted in a friendly way. On the other hand, the hiring managers tend to take offense easily. Many of them are technical specialists but not really people persons, and for quite a few of them the feeling self-importance goes strongly to their head. Might be even worse in academia than in the industry, at least judging by what I read. The even worse part is that she had to deal with a committee. The problem with committees is that there is a higher probability that at least one member will be a self-important moron who will take offense.

Ironically, this went so bad because from the tone of the letter Hannah doesn't appear to be a people person either, but one with the self-importance gone to her head. It's hard enough to negotiate when one side has this attitude, and much harder when both sides do. For all I understand, the tenure positions are coveted in academia, so when the committee made an offer to Hannah, they likely felt that they're making her an honor. Which is expected to be accepted humbly.  Responding to the offer with the words "Granting some of the following provisions will make my decision easier" is the opposite of humility. It's the negotiation from the position of power, implying that they've made a humble supplication of her, and she is considering whether to grant their wish. I hope you can see by now how they felt offended.

As you can see, great many things went wrong with Hannah's negotiation, and none of them have anything to do with her gender. All of them had to do with the communication mistakes, character of the people involved, pride and prejudice of academic nature, and lack of an experienced intermediary to calm down the tempers.

What could Hannah had done better? I'd recommend first thing going there, looking at the place, and meeting the people. A personal contact always makes the following remote communications much more personable. And then making her requests either in a face-to-face meeting or over the phone. Making them in a personable tone of requests, not demands. Like "hey, and how does such a thing run at your college? would it be OK if I do it like this?". Perhaps, making some of the requests through the HR department people. And what could have the college done better? After the hiring committee had made the decision, they could have used a professional recruiter from HR to communicate between the committee and Hannah.

Of course, yet another way to look at it is "do you want to work with people like this?". The point of the interview is that not only candidate is a good fit for the company but also that the company is a good fit for the candidate. If you think that the company behaves unreasonably in response to your reasonable requests, it's probably best not to work there: obviously, your ideas of what is reasonable differ widely.

And this also brings the point about whether the women are undeservedly seen as too aggressive. I'd say that Hannah's example demonstrates exactly the kind of over-aggressiveness. It's not that she tried to negotiate for the better conditions, it's HOW she tried to do it. Instead of building the mutual rapport and convincing the counterparty of her goals in a friendly way, she saw it as a fight. It's not the perception of the aggression that is the problem, the problem is in the aggression that is actually present.

I wonder if it might also be connected to another effect about negotiations. As described in the book "The negotiating game" by Karrass, and as I can anecdotically confirm from my experience, when a good negotiator gets the major thing he wants, he goes soft on the opponent and doesn't mind giving up some minor points, to keep the relationship happier. On the other hand, the poor negotiators keep hammering non-stop even if they've got the negotiating power and already managed the good conditions, they still keep trying to squeeze everything possible out of the opponent. Perhaps the second case is the same character trait that is seen as high aggression, the irony being that the higher aggression brings less success.

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