How women can win at negotiation

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(MoneyWatch) It's no secret that women earn less than men -- even when working full-time and in similar jobs. One reason? Women seem to approach negotiations differently than men, and often make choices that undermine our potential for success.

At least that's my take away from watching a talk from Margaret A. Neale, professor of management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and co-director of the Executive Program for Women Leaders. In this video (hosted at Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org site), Neale describes a rule change in professional tennis that allowed players to request reviews of ref calls. Male players were far more likely to challenge calls than female players. Since at least some calls were overturned, it stands to reason that many female players lost out, unjustly, by accepting the ref's word as final.

The same thing happens in business negotiations, Neale told me in a phone interview. We are more likely to see an offer as set -- just like a ref's call -- and that challenging it would be a huge source of conflict. "On average, women feel sort of at a disadvantage in very conflictual situations," says Neale. If you see a situation as win-lose, then you'd rather not engage, because you "already feel like you don't have the skill."

Women turn out to be very influenced by this perception of skill. Neale describes other research in which women told that people like them were bad at negotiating did worse than their male counterparts. Women told that people like them did well at negotiating did much better than their male counterparts.

So the key to a successful negotiation? Convince yourself that you're not entering an adversarial situation. Instead, you and the party on the other side of the table have a problem, and you need to solve it together. "That's much more in line with where women can excel," says Neale. "We do see ourselves as problem solvers." Chances are, you can convince yourself that you're very skilled at finding creative solutions. Sure, it looks thorny that your potential boss wants you to work for X dollars, and you want to work for X+Y dollars, but you both want to work together, and you know you bring certain unique abilities to the table that will help her solve her problems. So surely you can work things out.

The upside of approaching negotiations this way -- as problems to be solved together -- is that it solves the likability problem. In "Lean In," Sandberg describes research finding that women perceived as hard-charging types are liked less. But if you approach a negotiation as a problem solving session -- with you helping an organization meet its challenges -- this doesn't come up. "It's really hard to dislike somebody who is helping you achieve your goals," says Neale.

How do you handle negotiations?

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