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  • Cat Hicks

People can't give you what you want until you tell them what you want

Updated: Nov 18, 2021


There are tons of posts, and books, and talks about negotiating salaries. This isn't going to be that. This is going to be about what comes before that: motivating yourself to negotiate at all. Why should you negotiate your salary? It feels risky, it's scary, and scary things are uncomfortable. It is possible to lose an opportunity because of it (although I would argue, the benefits will really outweigh this risk, long-term). But it is so worth it.

Our dog, who negotiates for walks constantly

One thing I've realized is that all those posts, books and talks don't help if you don't ever start. Just making the decision to negotiate is a real blocker for a lot of us. Just deciding that you're allowed to. Well, you're allowed to.


I've been telling everyone this lately. Feels like in 2021 many of us need to hear it again. Just this fall, I've helped four different people talk and write and work through big, scary salary negotiations. And honestly, it rocks. They've gone through these big conversations and they've all come out the other side with more than they expected and stronger relationships.


That's why I like talking about negotiating. I like it when we can all talk about it, despite all the pressures and forces trying to keep us isolated, all the toxic environments making us feel like we don't deserve better treatment at work, all the imposter syndrome making us wonder if we can ever change anything. So I talk to my friends about their jobs, and whether they're happy, and if they're not, I like trying to help them get happier. But separate from just caring, I really love thinking about negotiating.


I used to be terrified of it. I wasn't raised to negotiate, and I didn't see any examples of it until well after college. Research training does its best to make you careful, deliberate, and detail-oriented; it does not tend to make you speculative or adventurous.


But there was always another part of me that was adventurous. The storyteller in me. The person who founded a startup, and who moved across the country for school, and who took buses when she couldn't afford a car and refused to be cowed even when showing up for fancy interviews after riding the bus. And when I realized negotiating is always about storytelling, something really clicked for me, the adventurer who could see these challenges as exploration, and creativity, and maybe even something fun. I challenged myself to get over the fear of failure and to experiment with this like it was any of the other skillsets I have taught myself. And you know what? It is a skillset and you can teach yourself. And that skillset that you can teach yourself can be transformative. When you can really, deeply ask yourself: do I know the value of my work? Have I ever written it down, or said it out loud?--that's part of truly understanding the work you want to do.


I've realized that so few of us really feel comfortable with this stuff. So few of us get any encouragement to think about it. And so many of us are hurt by that, quietly undervalued, quietly disheartened, and quietly discouraged. I get that negotiating isn't a magic solution. Individual resilience doesn't fix systemic issues and there are always situations in which people might not have the power or risk tolerance to do any of this. We need to work towards better systems.


Salary negotiation is just a place to start. But still, what a time to start: roughly 75% of the people I hang out with regularly are interviewing for new jobs, and places need them. No time like the present. No feeling like standing up for yourself. I strongly, strongly encourage you to give negotiating a go, if you are in that place I used to be in. In my experience, it's absolutely worth it. Here are a few of the things I've found extremely helpful to remember:


  1. You should probably negotiate. You really should. I will never give an ultimatum but I've heard too many people say they are a special case when they aren't. The evidence strongly suggests the vast majority of us are underpaid. It's rare to walk into an offer where negotiating isn't a useful tool. Isn't negotiating just a conversation about needs and values? How many times do you get the chance to get thousands of dollars (or more) based on ten or fifteen minutes of your time (or less)? Crucially, there is a negotiation gap for marginalized and underrepresented people in every field I've seen research on. And, I have found that people really show you who they are, when you raise an uncomfortable conversation about your needs. So we especially deserve to tell the story of our value and to learn about the place asking us to join them, based on the way they respond to us.

  2. You are negotiating about the value of the work that a role is going to do. This is a big one. It's easy to feel like a negotiation is a place where you have to argue about your own inherent worth, dignity, or belonging. It feels personal, icky, and threatening. But your worth is not determined by money. I find it much easier to negotiate when I remember I am talking about the value of future work. This also helps with learning that past pay is not a great guide for your future pay in other roles. For those of us who have often been systematically underpaid and want to correct that...this is a huge piece of the puzzle. I've found it most helpful to focus conversations on the value of the work. Believe in it. When you bring this mindset to it, you start to see that negotiating is proof that you understand the value of the work.

  3. When we stand up for the value of our own work, it will enable us to stand for pay equity for other people. This is also something I really believe. Accepting being underpaid can have a real impact on how your coworkers, colleagues, community members are paid. Conversely, standing up for yourself and succeeding gives you more power to contribute to pay equity for your colleagues. Arguments against negotiating and social pressuring will make you feel like you're being combative or "taking away" from other people by valuing yourself. I do not believe this.

  4. Numbers--real numbers, salary numbers--are not bad things. Numbers are not rude, confrontational, aggressive, or mean. Salary information is not impolite. They are simply pieces of information. Do not cut yourself off from information. Companies sure won't cut themselves off from any information they can use. It is absolutely mind-twisting to me that we carry so much secrecy around this information. I have a lot of empathy for the fact that these conversations are difficult! But think about this: employers get to know incredibly personal information about you, get to know details of your daily life, and they certainly know down to the cent how they're using money in exchange for people's time. If they're comfortable with it, you should be. I strongly encourage you to get in the habit of asking for numbers, expecting numbers, telling people you need to know numbers, and sharing numbers with your friends. Small moments of embarrassment and fear are worth it for creating more community around this, for having people to talk to, and for getting information.

  5. Getting a new job is not the only time you should negotiate. I've helped several friends negotiate for re-leveling and other big transitions in their teams. Look, we all join places or take on jobs that can grow beyond what is recognized. In a healthy organization, you should be celebrated for having the strategic insight to notice if this has happened and the initiative to try and change it. I know this is easier said than done. But being your own advocate without apology is a powerful thing and does not turn off just because you are already a member of a team.

  6. You should help other people negotiate. See 4. above: quickest path to the most accurate information is to talk to your friends and close colleagues about this stuff. I have found that the best way to learn, myself, is to help other people. I started helping people negotiate simply because I cared about them, but I've also realized it's an amazing way to see many examples of these complicated scenarios and do some supercharged, accelerated learning. Plus people will always remember you for caring about their success. And that takes us back to 3: working toward pay equity together.


I frequently tell people this thing, because it took me a long time to learn something so simple: people can't give you what you want until you tell them what you want. There are so many factors in our social ecosystems, our upbringings, and the barriers we face that discourage us from even taking this first step. But you should ask for what you want. Give people the chance to give it to you.


If this advice sparks something in you and you want more personal support, reach out: I offer a small number of 1:1 coaching slots to help people tell their stories in salary negotiations. More details on this to come!


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