It was at the tail end of another long, hard day in the office that I received an unexpected call from head office in South Korea.
I picked up the phone and heard an angry male voice speaking in Korean.
“I’m fed up with your sloppy work. Why can’t you get your act together! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
With no prelude or explanation, the unnamed man launched into a tirade about performance, presumably mine. Before I could squeeze in a word in my defense or ask for his credentials, he hung up.
It was as if I got hit by a workplace sniper attack: the perpetrator gunning down morale from across the globe and remaining incognito. I imagined him perched on the ladder of corporate hierarchy, looking down at me in a disdainful snarl.
I was then working as an entry-level buyer for the American subsidiary of a major Korean construction conglomerate. With an abrupt phone call, he tried to shame me into “doing a better job” with the thinly veiled threat of getting me fired. This was one of the most extreme and unpleasant use of contentious tactics I’ve encountered in the workplace.
It was, in fact, not unlike encountering a schoolyard bully. Even children instinctively know how to use contentious tactics, and sometimes we have to deal with them used against us by adults in the workplace.
To be fair, contentious tactics are not inherently evil, manipulative, or childish in and of themselves. Lisa Gates, negotiation expert and consultant with SheNegotiates, defines contentious tactics as tools for “contending to resolve conflict [or win negotiations] on your own terms.” They are tools, like a pencil or Photoshop, which can be used for either good or bad depending on the context of the situation and intent of the user. She adds that “It’s important to recognize these tactics to increase your self-awareness and to notice when others are employing them against you.”
Below, I explore some common contentious tactics encountered in workplace negotiation and suggestions on how to deal with them.
Shaming and Threats
Like a schoolyard bully who’s older and bigger than you, the Korean manager used his position of power to shame and threaten me into “doing a better job.” The real shame was in the fact that he never bothered to explain what I was doing wrong or how I could do a better job. This was not a constructive conversation.
And the truth is, I was doing great. In the US office there was talk of putting me on the management track in Korea. But the call helped me clearly see this wasn’t going to work out. I perceived that the call was endemic of a hierarchical culture that tolerated shaming and threats, and I wasn’t going to have any of it. Within a few months, I got another job and left.
Shaming and threats are like land mines; they can start wars. When you encounter them, you have the choice to either hold or return fire. Or you can choose to leave the battlefield, and vote with your feet.
Which brings me to the number one rule in negotiation: Always be ready to walk away if the fit isn’t right.
Return Fire for Fire
But what if you encounter shaming tactics in salary negotiation? Victoria Pynchon of SheNegotiates advises women to return fire for fire, or play “tit for tat.” She says:
When you respond to insults with dignity, penalize your negotiation partner for his outburst with a proportional punishment, and quickly return to cooperation when he apologizes, you can turn your superior’s harrumph into your triumph in short order.
Should the other side respond with anger or try to make you feel ashamed for having asked for more money, maintain your composure, and do not react emotionally. Calmly recognize and state what is happening.
You can say, “I see that you’re upset,” or “I’m surprised that you’re angry.”
Get past the shame and fear. Hold your ground and return fire. You can say:
“What you just said [an angry outburst, an implication that you are greedy, etc] was uncalled for.”
And let them feel the shame they tried to make you feel:
“If you are trying to make me feel threatened or ashamed, I think that’s beneath you.”
“I assumed an organization as highly regarded as yours would pay market rate.”
Silence is Golden
Or, you can respond with silence, or even a “dead stare,” as Jen Dziura describes in this article about how years of getting hit on by dudes helped her hone her negotiation skills.
A good dead stare doesn’t let on whether you are displeased, impassively considering their offer, or wondering how they could have so mistaken the situation as to waste both your time and their own… If you do the dead stare long enough, you’ll at least get a follow-up question. Sometimes you’ll get a better offer right on the spot. At minimum, it buys you some time to think while the other person becomes less sure of [himself or herself].
Silence makes people uncomfortable. Use it to your advantage, especially if you encounter tactics aimed to shake your confidence and make you uncomfortable. This effectively is returning emotional fire for fire.
Generally speaking, people want to be liked, and managers want to be respected. This is why ingratiation in the form of expressing genuine appreciation can help establish rapport and make negotiations smoother.
Be mindful of the fine line between ingratiation and flattery. When done excessively, ingratiation can create the effect of emperor’s new clothes, or a naked lie. It can backfire, too, making the flatterer seem like a glad-handing doormat who would concede to every demand as easily as an overripe peach bruises on a hot summer day.
So be genuine in your appreciation of the other side, or your negotiation partner. If you are negotiating a job offer, you can start the conversation by expressing gratitude and enthusiasm. Start with something like, “I really appreciate the offer and am excited for the opportunity to join a stellar team that’s making leading the innovation on mobile app marketing.”
Promises are, in fact, a powerful negotiation tactic that salespeople (call now to receive 10 new exciting juicer parts for your Jack Lalanne Power Juicer today!) and parents (eat all your veggies now and you’ll get ice cream for dessert) have been using for ages. You can use them to make a compelling ask.
Gates highlights that promises are most useful when employed for mutual benefit. So if you’re going to ask for something at work, frame the ask as a benefit to the other side. Consider how your getting what you want would benefit your boss, the team, or the organization as whole.
Might you take extra work and administrative burden off your boss’ plate, so she can focus on bigger wins or leave work on time to make her little one’s dance recital? If you can promise this, what can you ask for? Or maybe you have a plan to help meet and exceed your team’s yearly performance goals, so your team can receive the full annual bonus. If you can promise execution of this plan, what can you ask for? Conversely, what might you need so you can execute the plan?
Making good on promises is the basis of all agreements, whether they’re made on handshake or written in a contract. It’s also the hallmark of accountability, reliability and trustworthiness. Promise your future potential and deliver more than they bargained for. This will make you more desirable and therefore valuable to your employer.
Do you like to prove yourself right? You might fill the gaps with stories and back it up with logic, facts and figures. But without a genuine connection built on trust — meaning unless the other side is already on your side — no persuasive argument will get them to concede to your position. This tactic, like shaming and threats, can backfire and be met with a stonewall of silence or a dead stare.
Think of the endless debates between creationists and evolutionists, Republicans and Democrats, bread eaters and gluten evaders, dog lovers and cat lovers. The list goes on and on. You simply can’t change people’s minds.
Nonetheless, under the right circumstances, persuasive argumentation can be an effective tool for workplace negotiation. If you’re building a case for your value at work, always be prepared to support your case with facts and figures. But first be mindful of establishing a relationship and rapport with your superior.
For this reason, ingratiation would be a good way to open the negotiation conversation. Then negotiate with flexibility and an openness to exploring creative solutions (This might mean making concessions or changing your position). Make promises or offers to deliver more value in a mutually beneficial way. If your ask is met with tactics to make you feel ashamed or threatened, don’t be afraid to return fire for fire or respond with dignity, silence, and a dead stare. And be ready to walk away, unsullied.
Remember, it takes a certain level of maturity to contend and negotiate with others without resorting to bully tactics of a ten-year old tattletale. Anyone, even a child, can use contentious tactics. But how you deal with them — with tact and poise — can set you apart and help you achieve negotiation success.