How do you negotiate for influence?
March 29, 2014 9:50 AM   Subscribe

It is likely that soon I will be in a possession of a job offer from one of my company's competitors. As sometimes happens, my job search started out of frustration with certain issues in my current workplace rather than a true incompatibility. Ideally, I would love to stay where I am, but in an improved situation; the problem is that that things I want are not concrete things like a promotion or a raise, but rather vague like a greater influence on design and planning, and greater opportunities for leadership roles. How to translate these "wants" into specific, measurable goals?

Short story: I have been in my current job for about a year, on a fairly young team that is still sorting itself out. I have gradually gained my managers' appreciation and trust, and have risen to a level of certain influence, taking initiative and being given supervisory tasks and leadership of prominent projects. However, there was a pushback from some of the team members, apparently due to their feeling that a new guy shouldn't get ahead so much, and my boss, Sybil, who is generally a nice person who doesn't like to upset anybody, tried to make things better by removing most of these responsibilities from me. Granted, I was less than thrilled about this. Over the next weeks, as she witnessed how the resulting problems with leadership and accountability impacted our performance (and how her own life was made inconvenient by the added responsibilities), she started soft-pedalling back, and gradually brought me back on board, but she is still extremely careful that it doesn't look like the new guy is "in charge" of anything.

Now, I can sort of understand the feelings that generated the pushback; but at the same time, I do not want to work in secret. I am good at what I do, and I want to do it openly, and be recognized for it. Sybil has been offering her continued support in our discussions of the situation, but her behavior in these incidents makes me view any verbal declaration with skepticism.

But ideally, I would like to see these events as a problem to be resolved rather than a deal-breaker. I started the search for a new job out of frustration, but I know that a job offer from a competitor is a good bargaining tool. Now that one is incoming, I need some coaching on how to handle this sort of negotiation. My problem is, I am not sure how to convert my vague wishful thinking into specific and measurable goals. I cannot ask for a promotion, I just got one of these recently, and will not qualify for the next column in the table for a few more years; I don't want a raise, it is not about the money. It is about job responsibilities and opportunities for development. I want to go back to the trajectory I was on initially, which included gradually increasing supervisory roles, input on planning and design of our products, eventually taking me toward management position, within a several year's timeframe.

What language do I use? How to even approach this sort of negotiation? How do I trust verbal assurances, which can be disregarded at any point? Do I make a written contract or is this overkill? Should I hope that things will get better with time? Or is this a lost cause and I should move on?

Hope me, dear MeFites, otherwise I might have to go and take that job in California...
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Frankly, your situation is one of the reasons that moving on to new jobs is often the only way to proceed. You may want and believe you're capable of more responsibility, but you've been specifically barred from that role due to team pushback. You can either bide your time and wait for the other team members to come to terms with you in a position of authority (protip: this may never happen) or you can move on and 'reset' in a new position at a new company.

To put it another way: You can only ask for the specific, measurable authority that your boss specifically took away from you, and she's unlikely to give that back. Or, if she does, she'll be unhappy with the added hassle to her own life and reduced team performance. There is no win-win here; there is no way to 'simply' use the job offer as proof of your value and a lever to get something your boss agrees you'd be good at anyway.

Take the new job, move on, and kick ass in that new role. Your team already said they didn't want you in charge, and they got their way. It will be a very long time, if ever, before they're likely to change their mind and want you in charge, because no matter how long it's been, it'll always be a reversal of what they want. You disagree - fine. Move on. But "I want authority over people who actively don't want me having authority over them" is a recipe for disaster and dysfunctional team dynamics from Day One.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:09 AM on March 29, 2014 [18 favorites]

I would think that minimally, a frank discussion about how you are feeling is a good way to start, expressed in terms similar to what you have done here. Your boss may have some ideas on how to resolve this, if truly interested. It's tricky, though, because it may be hard to put these concerns on paper in such a way that you know that they are good and resolved in the future. Any verbal promises can sort of soft-peddle back away again to where you don't want to be, and at that point, you've overshot your new job opportunity.

I think that the only way this would work would be a clear promotion to a higher level that clearly carries with it more responsibility and a specific job description that allows you to do the things you want to do. This is probably a tough sell, though, if your boss is more concerned about the opinions of the team and equity of seniority than your contributions to the group. Or perhaps you could request a lateral job change to a specific title that carries with it a new description, but not at a promotional level above your peers. In this case, your new responsibilities would carry with them some authority to make decisions as a lead, but only at key times in a project.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:22 AM on March 29, 2014

The new job sounds like a good idea. But I also recommend reading a book called Influence --there are steps you can take to naturally gain power and influence at work regardless of title.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:23 AM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

"...gradually increasing supervisory roles, input on planning and design of our products, eventually taking me toward management position, within a several year's timeframe."

I think this above is exactly what you want to say when you apply to new jobs.

I was in your position a little over a year ago - I loved my current job but there weren't really any short-term opportunities for growth into a leadership role. When I started my job search I included something basically along the lines of the above quote in my cover letter and I made it VERY clear in my interviews that it was something I wanted.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:26 AM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with Tomorrowful- once you are pigeonholed like this, the only way out is almost always a new situation. I just took a new job coming out of a similar situation, and I was sure to mention in the interview I was interested in a lead/manager role at some point. Even though that position doesn't really even exist, I felt like if it ever does I would have no chance of ever getting if they had spent years thinking of me as "just one of the developers."

I'll add one more thing I've learned about the work world, and I hope it doesn't sound cynical, because I've found it to be absolutely true:

People do exactly what they are made to do. All the "we'll see what we can do's" and "Could you please help me as a human being's" add up to exactly nothing. People will accept you as a leader when someone who ranks above them tells them they must. Hearing it from someone with power over them is the one and only thing that ever makes a difference.

I mention this only to urge you not to put any stock in "They said they might..." or "asking nicely," and not to accept any type of responsibility as real unless it's in writing, announced to the team, and printed on an org chart. Plenty of places will say "Oh yeah you can take leadership on that" just to get you out of their office, and never even mention it to anyone, including the people you're allegedly leading.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:38 AM on March 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

I get the feeling that moving on might be the best thing to do here. I don't think you're going to get what you want in a reasonable timeframe without serious upheaval in your current role, so staring up somewhere new might be the most positive move you can make.

Your manager could have put her foot down and told the rest of her team to toe the line and give you their support but she didn't, so they've effectively won this encounter. If you do try to use the new job as a bargaining chip, the people that don't want to see you do well will notice and probably resent you even more for it.

If one comes, I also wouldn't accept the counteroffer. There's a very good chance that if you do, you'll spend the next few months training your replacement before being shuffled out. A paranoid management perspective might think that you'll just threaten to leave again if things don't go your way in the future, but it's a bigger loss to them if you're further up the chain, so they'll look after the company's needs first and your needs last. So if I was in your situation, and I have been, I'd take the opportunity you've been given, rather than fighting the one you've had taken away from you.
posted by peteyjlawson at 10:49 AM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you are certain you will get the things you want at the new/competing company, then I would make a move to get there quick.

Were I your boss, and you came to me and said "I would like this, or I am going to go work for your competitor?"

I would start looking for your replacement five minutes later, and wouldn't trust to to make coffee from that moment on.
posted by timsteil at 10:52 AM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the only way to stay in your current company and expand your influence would be to get an actual promotion and a job description that gives you more actual authority and responsibility. You're not going to make any progress in your current role because, as your co-worker is rightly pointing out, you are not the boss of her and only a promotion would change that. (Though this might also cause ill-will as the new guy getting promoted over more senior people.)

Since a promotion isn't in the cards for you just now, moving on seems like the best thing to do.
posted by Andrhia at 10:53 AM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

All the "we'll see what we can do's" and "Could you please help me as a human being's" add up to exactly nothing. People will accept you as a leader when someone who ranks above them tells them they must. Hearing it from someone with power over them is the one and only thing that ever makes a difference.

I agree with the first bit of this, because vague, implied-but-not-really-stated acquiescence to a request is often completely empty, but I have also accepted leadership, seen leadership accepted, and been accepted as a leader without coercion from on high. My experience is that orders from above are far from the best, let alone the only, way to gain influence.

I don't know why the OP's expectations mismatch so badly with what's available to him or her at the current job, but I agree with pretty much everyone that it's time to move on. A competing job offer is good leverage for some negotiations, but not this one.
posted by jon1270 at 11:09 AM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone. You won't get the promotion and support you need at the current place - that's been demonstrated -- and don't take a counteroffer if it comes. More often than not, once they've had to counteroffer to get you to stay in the short term, management will be looking for ways to get you out of there and give you less, not more, responsibility.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:27 AM on March 29, 2014

I am good at what I do, and I want to do it openly, and be recognized for it.

This might be the real source of the problem. I am someone who has a track record of exercising influence and that mostly occurs under the radar. I have a long history of not getting credit for things I do and I have been wrestling with how to get credit yet I also recognize that influence works best when it isn't too showy. Getting the limelight tends to undermine it. This is part of why we have the stereotype of the smoky backroom deals in business: The desire to be on stage is more about ego than about actually getting things done. People who get things done often actively deny credit rather than trying to claim it, they actively try to credit everyone else who was involved.

My personal experience is that pushback occurs when people think I am doing things for show, to grab the limelight, rather than because it is the right thing to do and benefits others. I have had a hard time trying to find a solution for this in my own life but something helpful has been to work at looking less like an attention whore to other people.

There are good books on negotiation out there but influence is generally not about negotiated deals in contract form. There is always a difference between the de jury "rules"/laws/whatever and the de facto situation. There are always people getting things done just to get them done and people trying to grab the glory regardless of how actually did the work. If you want influence, you need to be in the first category. Yes, you should find ways to get credit where it matters -- in your annual review, how much you get paid, etc. But influence is generally a stealthier thing to do. It is about quietly getting things done. The pushback you have already gotten means you probably can't get it back at this job. You have already made everyone's radar and not in a good way. I tend to move on when that happens (or seriously scale back my "stage appearance" until the uproar has very much died).
posted by Michele in California at 11:36 AM on March 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Influence is about job title in a corporate structure. Land the new job, ask for 48 hours or whatever to accept, and then go see Sybil and say you want a promotion to Team Lead or whatever title -- they can make a post for you if they are committed to keeping you.

if Sybil says no or promised things that will happen any time but right now, say thank you very much and hand in your notice.

That's how you do that.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:47 AM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're being not-so-subtly glass-ceiling'ed. Who does the team think deserves leadership on these prominent projects? Any of them, or do they just think the leadership should stay with Sybil? It's up to Sybil to establish that it's a matter of delegation and she'll choose whoever she wants.

Long story short: your current boss sucks and is being wishy-washy and avoidant. Smoothing all of this out is her job. Failing that, you can continue through force of will and personality, but that could raise other issues, and perhaps Sybil will chafe and cease to be an ally. Depending on your nature, you might experiment with the truism that business is not about making friends (see 'force of personality' above). Are the things you want to do making the company better? Why wouldn't they want that? So on and so forth.

Maybe she should be a project manager and the people who have good ideas should be able to have a chance to implement them, you know?
posted by rhizome at 11:53 AM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Normally I would say is that what you should do is write your ideal job description, and when you have your offer, bring it to your boss, and say "I have been thinking about it and I really want this instead of what I currently have." DON'T mention the other offer or that you're thinking of leaving. If they give it to you, rip the offer up and never tell a soul at your current company that you were thinking of leaving. If they don't give it to you, give your notice and take the other job.

However, it sounds to me like you work in a company that values seniority over merit. Experience and seniority are certainly valuable, but if a senior person is failing the company or holding it back from success, that's bad for everybody. If nobody is working with that person or group to improve their performance, and management isn't even aware of how poor they are performing, that's really bad. In my experience, you'll never get ahead in a place like that and you should just walk. Even if you're the very best at what you do, you're still being held back by mediocre management and talent around you. Imagine what you could do in a company where everybody is as awesome as you! Never give up on finding that ideal. I'd say take the other offer and don't look back.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:47 PM on March 29, 2014

I also just wanted to add to make it expressly clear: An offer from another company is not the powerful negotiating tool you think that it is. You might be able to negotiate for something in the short term, but it is not a magical sorcerer's wand that will make organization problems go away, and it will make you look like a major flight risk. You simply can't use it for influence at all. You can use it to negotiate for a major pay day to finish whatever project you have or for however long it will take for them to get the important knowledge you have codified so that they can swiftly fire you.

However it is a great negotiation tool for you personally, because it gives you the confidence you need to ask for EXACTLY what you want, plainly, and to not worry about walking should you not get what you want. The most powerful person in any negotiation is the person who is willing to walk away if the terms are not agreeable. That's you. Nobody gets to know that but you. The only way your current employer should ever know that you have an offer on the table is because you've given your notice and you're definitely out the door.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

I agree with pazazygeek: Using this offer as a means to threaten and bully your employer is a terrible move. Using it shore up yourself psychologically is brilliant. Go in, ask for what you want, if they balk then accept the other offer and put in your notice. Threatening to hurt people is the opposite of what it takes to exercise influence. Being trusted is a cornerstone of exercising influence and bullying tactics undermine that terribly.

I know someone who had a falling out at work and was given an "assistant" to help them. The minute the "assistant" was trained (to do the individuals job), the individual was fired. If they want you gone, they will probably not let you know up front so that you can make plans. You should play this game the same way: Don't tell them you are considering leaving unless it is to put in your notice. If you stay, you need them to trust you. Threats are not the way to gain trust.
posted by Michele in California at 1:48 PM on March 29, 2014

You want to stay there, so you have a lot to gain by sitting down and having this negotiation.

You also have your alternate plan. Great, but I wouldn't necessarily bring this up in your next meeting.

Your needs are outlined (more job responsibility and more opportunities for development) but it doesn't seem like you've proposed a clear solution on how to make these happen.

What I didn't read are Sybil's interests and preferences. Ok, so she wants to keep the team peace but she also needs your support. What else? Does she have any special projects coming down the pike that you might not know about? Does she actually want to promote you but her hands are tied by the organization? Does she know of another team that could use you more effectively?

If you are having a hard time finding solutions to your job needs, maybe she can come up with some!
posted by gillianr at 4:33 PM on March 29, 2014

I think you need to take the new job. Your boss has already made clear that she will not back you in this fight. She's happy to later you do work, but only in the shadows, and if she wanted to take steps to give you more official responsibility she would have.

I also think this is not the kind of thing you can negotiate for. You can ask for a raise or a promotion while saying you have an offer for those things but want to stay where you are. But "more responsibility in my current role or I take this othe job" will lead to her looking for your replacement immediately.

Frankly, the best I think you can do is to be honest with her about your situation without mentioning the other job. Tell her what you want and ask whether she will help bring about that situation -- and if so, how she will do so. You are in a position of strength because you can leave, but you don't need to tell her about your leverage.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:27 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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