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Expert in pay negotiations: Always expect a no

Arguments and figures will not get you a pay rise, but preparation will, is the advice from Malene Rix, expert in negotiations.

6. Jul 2023
5 min
English / Dansk

You produce more. You only rarely call in sick. You are flexible and put in the extra hours needed during hectic times. Your colleagues like you, and your cookies are the best in the office. Finally, inflation has eaten well into your current pay check, but your workplace is making good money as it is.

Basically, you are equipped with all the good arguments needed as you head for the annual pay negotiations with your manager with the aim of being paid more.

There is just one problem: Your arguments will not get you what you want.

“The greatest misconception in pay negotiations is that arguments will get you a pay rise. All negotiations start with a ‘no’. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be negotiating, and if you get a yes right away, chances are you will have sold yourself short.”

These are the words of Malene Rix. She has worked for 25 years as a negotiation adviser and teacher, helping employees as well as employers in the private and public sectors.

Malene Rix has written several books on negotiation and has taught at Novo Nordisk, Danske Bank and the European Parliament.

“Negotiation takes a long time and requires everyday efforts. You must sow some seeds and show that you are in want. The next step is to make some demands like: “Listen, at the upcoming pay negotiations, this is what I dream of”. Leave it at that for the time being and follow up later on, asking “what is needed for us to make it happen?”. That will give your manager a chance to create the framework necessary for them to plan and accommodate your wishes. They will not have prepared this framework if you wait until you are at the negotiating table, simply because they will not have received a clear mandate from their own manager,” she says.

“Spending time on ‘my arguments are better than yours’ is a negative process, and you should keep such discussions from turning into an annoyance.”
- Malene Rix, Negotiation Adviser

A thousand times no!

Malene Rix says that it is important to find out early on what it is that you really want. You should consider how you are an asset to the company and what you ask for in return.

“A lot of people turn to statistics or tables to find out what they are worth. Age, experience or something else. Benchmarking is fine, but it is more interesting to think about the value you add to the company because it enables more nuanced discussions and probably leads you to make more nuanced demands”, she explains.

“Speaking more and more about it before pay negotiations and making more and more different demands, makes it harder for the other part to tell you no over and over again.”

Should the talk end with a no anyway, it is important not to give up. Find out what causes your manager to say no. The answer is usually a tight payroll budget, but other avenues are worth a try: flexibility, an interesting career path, other assignments, a new team or something other.


Five good tips

  1. If you leave your demands for the actual negotiations, it is too late. Start well before. Tell your manager regularly that you expect to land a pay rise or other improvements at the negotiating table.
  2. Assume that your demands will likely be turned down, and do not think that you can argue your way to a result.
  3. Understand where your manager is coming from, and get creative about what you want to achieve: Perhaps there are other solutions than just pay.
  4. Accept it if the talks are not working to your advantage, and request that you separate for each of you to think of a new way forward.
  5. Do not threaten to quit your job if you did not get what you came for.

“Negotiations about money are not just a matter of payroll budgets. So, put the question of pay aside and explore other means by asking them questions. “What can I do to make it okay that the money that is actually available is spent on me?” This leaves out arguments and discussions about which one of you is right,” continues Malene Rix.

Time out

Precisely this topic of discussion is known to spiral out of control quickly, damaging the relationship between the employee and the manager. Walking this downward path partly has to do with our inclination as human beings to equate our professional capabilities with the way we are as persons.
And if our professional capabilities are rejected, we perceive it as being rejected as human beings. We are not good enough.

“Spending time on ‘my arguments are better than yours’ is a negative process, and you should keep such discussions from turning into an annoyance. Instead, you begin looking more at the person, assigning them some less flattering traits, and you suddenly say things like ‘that’s not fair of you! You are cold as ice and inflexible’. Why? Because the reason you are not getting anything out of the negotiations is because your manager is an idiot.”

In this scenario, the trick is to feel it happening before it happens. And if, after five to ten minutes’ discussions, you get nothing but noes, and you feel your blood pressure rising steadily, it is best to take a time out.

“At this point, it is fair to say ‘perhaps we won’t find a solution today. How about we take it up again next week. In the meantime, we can think about a solution?’ This will do good for both parties, instead of them sitting for half an hour more, arguing, with none of them budging an inch,” explains Malene Rix.

“Although you might think of it as a service announcement saying that you can always go somewhere else, it will always come across as a threat.”

...and remember! Don’t EVER...

No matter what happens at the negotiating table, there is one thing that you must never do. Never put your job on the line. It is difficult if discussions have ended in deadlock.

“Though you might think of it as a service announcement saying that you can always go somewhere else, it will always come across as a threat. It happens when the parties become annoyed at each other, and discussions go round in circles with your manager’s noes and your arguments.”

Is there any way of salvaging this situation afterwards? 

“It's difficult because the relationship has been damaged, but you can always try and go back and say: “Listen, this was a little too harsh. I like being here, so what do you say we try to come to an agreement anyway?”, finishes Malene Rix.

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