Small Business

What Women Don't Bargain For


EDITOR'S NOTE: Do women face more traps at the negotiating table than their male counterparts, as expert Mary Simon asserts in the interview below? BusinessWeek Online Small Business would love to share your reactions, opinions, and experiences with our readers. If you have a comment, an anecdote, or an observation, drop a line to feedback@businessweek.com and we'll publish a collection of your views in a week or so..

The stunned look on the face of the female entrepreneur who pushes back from the negotiating table, frustrated, confused, and disappointed in her own performance is all too familiar to executive coach Mary B. Simon. An expert on the art of negotiating, Simon teaches in Wharton's MBA program and sits in on many of her clients' negotiating sessions.

Women business owners are sometimes hampered by the tendency to buckle under in the face of psychological intimidation, Simon says, adding that many also invest too much of their personalities and in their businesses. As an antidote, she urges her clients to prepare with research, and also to check their assumptions at the door -- not everyone "fights fair," she reminds them. Simon, the author of Negotiate Your Job Offer: A Step-by-Step Guide to a Win-Win Situation, talked recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about how women can become better negotiators. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: What are some of the common mistakes that female entrepreneurs -- or any entrepreneur, for that matter -- should try to avoid?

A: It's easy to become intimidated when the stakes appear high and the threat of loss is there. That's when less-experienced negotiators will go into win/lose mode and will not engage [with] as much good will as would benefit the process. When this happens, there's often a need to slow down and state what might be obvious to you, [what] might be helpful in advancing the process. Stating what is clear to you can also be a helpful tool in calming yourself down if the discussion has become heated.

Most women entrepreneurs put such a premium on everyone working together for the common good, they sometimes assume everyone will arrive at the negotiating table with that same premise. When [the other side] arrives with arrogance or intimidation tactics, it can get ugly.

Also, women sometimes don't realize how personally tied they have become to the businesses they have built, and how that can affect their negotiating skills. They can analyze all of the important information in preparation for an in-depth negotiation, but when the other party begins to lob comments or statements intended to throw her off balance, the female entrepreneur will often teeter and weaken.

Q: How should she prepare for a trip to the negotiating table?

A: Prepare not only for the factual side of the negotiation, but also for the people/relationship side. Plan the strategies you would use to achieve two or three acceptable outcomes, rather than letting the pull of the other side take you in a direction you don't really want to go.

Sit down ahead of time with your team and discuss six or seven simple questions: What do we want in this deal? What's the likelihood we'll get it? What's standing in the way -- business and people obstacles -- of our getting it? Where are we willing to compromise? What will make us walk away from the table?

Then think about the other side: What might they be motivated by that might not seem obvious? How fluent are they in the negotiation process? How might they define success in the exchange, and why might they value that definition? Will there be more than one person on the "other side of the table"? What is the chain of command if there are several individuals representing the other side?

Remember, when two sides come together to negotiate, there are some common interests that have brought them together. Pay attention to the value and the significance that those common interest have for you and for the other side, and use the power of those common interests to neutralize areas of disagreement.

Q: What about timing? How is that important in negotiation?

A: During an important negotiation, time takes on a very different pace. It is of critical importance to keep in mind that a lot more is going on during a negotiation than is apparent on the surface. That's why the notion of taking things very slowly and deliberately will yield valuable dividends. Even when an entrepreneur thinks that the negotiation process is moving slowly, it's often moving too quickly for the level of importance of what's being discussed. Many levels of activity and exchange occur simultaneously in a negotiation, which is why it can be so demanding.

Don't be afraid to be a time-keeper. If you need a break, take 45 minutes away from the negotiating room -- and don't talk about what's going on inside. If you need to have two or three days respite, suggest that. Both sides may come back renewed and more ready to compromise if they get some distance from the process.

If you have some people going to the table with you, it's not a bad idea to designate one solely as an observer. He or she will have the perspective to really see what's going on "under the table" -- things that you are likely to miss in the heat of the negotiation. Debrief this person afterward to find out what they've noticed about the process -- it can be enlightening and invaluable. The business "fact" level is what most entrepreneurs assume will determine the outcome, but it is only one piece of a landscape that includes interpersonal dynamics, gender dynamics, issues of market position, and age- and authority-related dynamics.


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