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Negotiate your way to workplace success

Most workers will have to ask for a raise, a more flexible schedule, a change in duties or other needs during their career. Want a good outcome? Be prepared and confident.

Mimi Donaldson has not forgotten the first time she walked into a manager's office and requested a raise. It was during a period of uncertainty. Rumors about a possible wage freeze had been circulating among employees.

Yet Donaldson persevered. She got a pay raise, and she improved her standing on the job. Donaldson's secret? She arrived at the table prepared.

"I went to other trainers at the company, and I called people at competing firms and found out what the going pay rate was for someone with my experience in the training field," recalled Donaldson, a speaker at a Simmons Graduate School of Management Women's Leadership Conference in Boston.

Before meeting with her boss, Donaldson requested 15 minutes of uninterrupted time. She wanted to make sure she would have his full attention. She entered the room with the minimum and maximum amounts she would accept firmly etched in her mind. More important, she knew her options: Because there were many training companies in northern California at the time, Donaldson knew she could quit outright and quickly find another position that paid as much or more.

Donaldson's experience is not unusual. At some point, most people will have to confront the need for a raise, a more flexible schedule, a change in duties or some other workplace issue.

Even when working out conflicts with colleagues, supervisors, team members or relatives, negotiating skills will come into play. How we handle these matters can affect our jobs and our personal relationships.

"Negotiating is not just a skill that you take out once in a while when you have to make a deal. It's a way to get what you want out of life, and it requires a master plan," writes Donaldson, co-author of Negotiating for Dummies.

Not every negotiating session ends as well as Donaldson's.

Deborah Kolb, a professor at the Simmons Graduate School of Management who specializes in negotiating and conflict resolution, said women frequently encounter pitfalls in their quest for leadership positions.

"Usually, they are told they must take stretch assignments that will give them more responsibilities and a chance to be seen," Kolb said. "But if they do not negotiate the conditions, they will not be successful."

Kolb said terms should be negotiated before the employee accepts the assignment.

"Oftentimes, the assignment may come on top of an assignment the woman already has. In this case, the conditions or terms she negotiates may include the time needed to complete the job, the support staff required, or whether she will be relieved of some of her other duties so that she can concentrate fully on her new assignment . . . She knows she will be looked at critically. If she fails, she may never get another chance to prove herself again."

Kolb advises that when attempting to sell an idea to a team of people, including top executives, the employee should "seed" the meeting ahead of time. "Make sure you have people on your side before you go in," she said. "If you are negotiating something with high stakes, get your ducks lined up. Why? Because it is often difficult for women to get their ideas across, especially in an environment where the loudest person, the most aggressive person, is likely to win."

Joan Lukey, a senior partner at the Boston law firm Hale & Dorr and president-elect of the Boston Bar Association, said the ability to seem confident, even when you're not, can help you get what you want.

"Whether you are negotiating for yourself, your client or your product, you should do it with absolute confidence," Lukey said. "Your body language, the tone of voice you use, your facial expressions indicate whether you are in control of yourself and the situation."

Robert Grassia, 44, was fresh out of college when he negotiated a starting salary that came close to meeting his expectations. The position was with TWA's reservations office in Boston.

"I had friends in the airline industry," Grassia recalled. "They gave me an idea of what their salary was, and, based on their job titles and education levels, I asked for $30,000. This was in 1980. We negotiated from the salary initially offered, which was $26,000, and came to an agreement at $28,000."

Grassia, who had sales, data entry and computer experience, used his skills as leverage. "My approach was, "If you don't ask for what you want, you won't receive it,' " he said.

Sometimes, using leverage to gain an immediate advantage, particularly when negotiating disputes, can lead to problems later on, said management lawyer Jonathan Bell of Greenberg Traurig LLP in Boston.

"The adversarial approach or leverage-based approach has great risks," he said. "It can come back to haunt you later on. It's no fun working in a place where each side is having trouble accommodating the other's interests."

Donaldson, who gives advice on the do's and don'ts of negotiating, said her first negotiating experience taught her about the importance of understanding the other person's concerns.

She recalled that when she and her boss met to discuss her request for a raise, he told her outright that company spending was down. Donaldson knew the firm had financial concerns. Rather than fight, she said, "I listened and empathized."

Then she presented written evidence of her own unit's success. While other divisions were simply holding the line, her division was profitable. She presented her sales figures as well as the responses she'd received from clients. "I tooted my horn, and I did it loudly," Donaldson said. "I also made it very easy for him to justify my request for a raise to his own boss. At the same time, I tried to understand and empathize with his position."

Rather than demand an answer right away, Donaldson pushed what she described as "the pause button," a request for time out that let her boss mull over her request, talk to his superiors and get back to her in a few weeks.

By giving him the tools he needed to press her case, she made him a teammate rather than an adversary. More important, Donaldson used a subtle form of leverage that made it clear from the outset that she and her boss had mutual interests: If her unit did well and her numbers were high, he would benefit, too.

By making sure the talks did not turn into a confrontation, Donaldson succeeded in getting that raise, and her boss became an ally.