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Why rock stars and unicorns fail at negotiation

Woman thinking at desk

Maybe you’re a rock star in your niche. A unicorn who brings a unique blend of strengths, skills and talents to the table. A person who generates value for your company or clients. 

But when it comes to announcing the value you bring and bravely asking for what you deserve, you feel the fear of being judged as bossy, greedy, aggressive or inappropriate. You find yourself postponing important, but difficult, conversations. "I should just be grateful and keep a low profile," you might think. 

It’s worth repeating: If you don't ask, you don't get. So how do you work around the fear so that you can ask for — and get — what you want?

I suggest a three-step approach: 

1. Acknowledge the fear. Have some compassion for it. 

For about 17 of your most formative years (give or take, if you started with kindergarten and attended four years of college), you've been trained to seek external validation. You were taught that your value is to be appraised and awarded by external authority figures, usually the grownup standing behind a lectern. This message was reinforced by your parents, your classmates, then later in your life, by your employers, teammates and sometimes even your romantic partners. 

It's considered a virtue to keep your head down, do good work and be praised by others. In negotiation, it's called the Tiara Syndrome. 

I suffered from the Tiara Syndrome some years back, when I devised a plan to add a $100,000 to the bottom line for my employer. I presented my work to the senior managers and CEO. I felt important. 

Then seduced by the myth of "keeping my head down" and wanting to appear humble, I shut up. I didn't ask for what I thought was coming my way — a promotion and raise. 

Did I get that promotion and raise? Nope. 

You probably haven't been trained to trust your own gut and intuition on the value of your contributions and your limitless future potential. So, of course, it feels unnatural to say things like, "My work here is tremendously valuable, and I'd like to be compensated at about 20 percent north of the going market rate."

If you feel discomfort, acknowledge it and don't let it stop you. 

2. Do a mental cleanse. 

To paraphrase master coach instructor Brooke Castillo, thoughts generate feelings and feelings drive your actions. Because actions drive your results, it's important to get to the root of your feelings, your thoughts. 

If you're having negative feelings about negotiating, you have options. The first is to white-knuckle the conversation while experiencing doubt, fear and discomfort. Sometimes it's the only option, to act as if you have the confidence. Sometimes this works. 

The second option is to take a pause to generate new thoughts. Can you close your eyes and imagine for a quick second that you were feeling fully calm, powerful and confident?

Remember that feeling inside and see what thoughts naturally arise in that feeling state. What if you owned your value 100 percent?

What would you think as you approached the negotiation table? That the best way for you to demonstrate your worth would be to simply ask for what you're worth? That it’s no threat to your ego for you to ask to be paid according to the value you bring?  

Might you think it's no problem to hear “No” or even to have one door close, since you've demonstrated you can contribute tremendous value? After all, if you can do it once, you can do it again elsewhere. 

3. Build a business case for your ask

To be most effective, put yourself in the shoes of the decisionmaker, the hiring manager or key client with whom you'd be negotiating. What do they most want? What motivates, inspires and scares them? What influences their decision-making? Find out, so that you can empathize.

From their perspective, state the barriers in the way of achieving their missions and goals. Articulate possible solutions to their problems. They have business needs and you have business solutions. Frame for the benefit they'd get from having you contribute solutions. 

Then tie your promotion and raise as a part of the solution you're offering. In a word, pitch. 

This three-step approach will fuel your growth as a person and as a professional. And when you make smart asks that delight your employers and clients, you'll become unstoppable. 

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Lisa Gates is a negotiation consultant and co-founder of She Negotiates Consulting and Training.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.