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Stephanie Francis Ward: You probably won’t get a promotion if you don’t ask for it, but planning how you want to make the request often requires more thought than some realize. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I’m speaking with Kathleen Kelley Reardon, a professor emerita at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. She’s also written various books about workplace politics for professionals and today, she’s joining us from Ireland through Skype. Welcome to the show, Professor.
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Wonderful. What are some things people need to think about before they start to advocate for themselves in terms of promotions or perhaps more pay or opportunities? Because you can’t just go in and ask. Right? You have to kind of plan things out and have a strategy.
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Right. We always have to consider the other person. Unlike manipulation and coercion, two other forms of influence, persuasion is something that you do with people. And so no matter how great your tastes might be for what you want to achieve, the other person is probably thinking, “What’s in it for me?” So that’s a really important consideration going into just about any persuasion, effort, or any negotiation.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m listening to what you just said and perhaps this is kind of a crazy question: Is there ever room for manipulation and coercion in the workplace in terms of getting what you want, perhaps as a naive question to ask?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Well, they are forms of influence that we find at all workplaces. There’s already some built in deception into our communication everyday anyway. If you go into work and somebody doesn’t like your outfit, they’re likely not going to tell you because there are rules for courtesy and there are professional rules and so there’s some degree of deception that occurs in all forms of communication.
Then, if you go a little bit further down the continuum, you get into manipulation and that is where people are not just abiding by rules to kind of save my face and I save your face in the conversation, not making you feel bad. These people are engaging in tactics that they are engaging in those tactics in order to go around rather than up front in dealing with other people. And some people get habitually like this and yes, there’s a lot of manipulation and there’s a fair amount of coercion at work as well.
Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. And do you think in terms of advocating for yourself in the workplace, is it often different for attorneys than other professionals?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: I think there’s a great deal of similarity, because I’ve interviewed many attorneys while writing the books that I’ve written and the blogs that I’ve written. We run into this similar situation. Mostly, what it depends on is what kind of environment are you working in politically?
In The Secret Handshake, I write about four different types, which range from “minimally political environment,” where what you see is generally what you get, to the “pathologically political environment,” where you go in every day watching your back because most of what you see is not what you get. And depending on where you are on that continuum, that would affect your effectiveness an awful lot more than the nature of the job.
Now, so there are exceptions of course. I imagine it’s different being an astronaut. It might be different dealing in the sciences. There are differences among careers but I would say that generally, we can say a lot of these things that we’ll talk about today could be used by anybody who’s working in an organization.
Stephanie Francis Ward: You mentioned the settings where it might be the politics are such that you have to watch your back. If that sort of setting bothers you, do you have advice for people besides finding a new job?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Well, I think it’s important to find out where you are in terms of political savvy. Are you a purist, for example? And a purist, it’s nice to be a purist. I think a lot of us start out that way and that is that you really believe that if you do your job well, that good things will happen and that nobody can really hold you back if you’re really superb and really are competent.
Some other people are more team players. They realize that politics exist but they’re focused more on the team. There’s not an awful lot of them worrying about what other people might be doing to them.
The street fighter kind of person is the one who really is aware that there’s a considerable amount of political going on in any organization. They’re more attentive.
So you have to find out where are you. If you’re a street fighter type of person, then you could probably do fairly well in a highly political environment, because you can see if the politics tends to be negative, if there’s people poisoning somebody’s well, and I can explain a little bit of that later if you like. Or doing things behind people’s back, you’re one of the people who would see that earlier than others.
So you have to look at who you are and what you like as to whether your style is suited to the environment in which you work.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. And can you tell me a bit about good ways that someone who’s starting a job, how they can read the political landscape and figure out where they fit in and how they should go about advocating for themselves?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Right. Well, it’s a journey. I’ve had so many people say to me, “Why didn’t you write these books 20 years ago?” I couldn’t have written them 20 years ago, because you need to be—unless you’re provided an awful lot by your parents and your teachers, and that’s a very rare circumstance, you really need to learn the politics of organizations by studying them; yes, reading what people have written about it, but also just being there and beginning to recognize when things may be going on that are not what they’re supposed to be, or what someone who’s less observant would think they are.
You really have to—it’s a trial-and-error kind of training that you have to go through and if you don’t go through it, you really, from pillar to post, most of your career if you’re in a highly or fairly-to-highly political environment.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And in terms of seeking promotions and pay for themselves, what are some common mistakes people make when trying to get those things?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Well, you have to be aware of not just the case that you’re making but what is the other person likely to be thinking? What are the pressures that that person is under? Is this good timing for this request? What is your data? Are you making less than most people that are doing the same job you’re doing, or some people that are doing the job that you’re doing?
You need to do a fair amount of research. And one of the best types of training, if you’re ever advising a young person, is to study debate. Because if you’re a debater, you learn how to understand the other person’s perspective at least as well as you understand your own, and so that way, you can link what it is that you want to what it is that they need or desire.
And a lot of people spend a good deal of time building their case as if it exists on its own—but a case is nothing unless it is attached to the desires and the limitations and the frustrations and the concerns and the perceptions of you that are held by the other person.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Interesting. We’re going to take a quick break and when we come back, I’m going ask the professor about how you can assess who at work would be a good advocate for you.
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Stephanie Francis Ward: And we’re back. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I’m speaking about advocating for yourself at work with communications professor Kathleen Kelley Reardon. Professor, it seems like for most of us, it’s very important you have supporters in the workplace who will advocate for you for you to get things you want. What’s your advice about getting the sense of who at work really will help you?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Well, this is a very important aspect of developing a career. Even when I talk to my own children, sometimes, they say, “Well, I wanna do it on my own because I want to know that I accomplished this myself.”
There’s very few of us that accomplish things, specifically as our careers progress, without the support of other people. And the way you do that, usually, is not to go up to somebody and say, “Will you be my mentor?” Perhaps eventually in a relationship you can do that, but you can have mentors without even their knowing it, and that means to be looking at how people get things done around you.
Now, you can’t be them; and if you’re a woman, for example, and that person’s a man, there are some differences there that could complicate the situation. If your age is different, that could be a complication, but you can still learn an awful lot.
And I often tell people a short story about a man named Larry. This man had a lot of power or where I worked, and a professor came in to speak with me, a young professor, and he wanted to be promoted. And I said to him, “Have lunch with Larry”—and I didn’t mean that that’s all he needed to be promoted, but I said, “Have lunch with Larry.”
He said, “No, I don’t need that.” He said, “I think that my background speaks for itself.”
I said, “Hey. Lunch couldn’t hurt. Just have coffee with Larry. If you don’t have lunch with Larry then have coffee with Larry.” And I said, “When Larry’s on your side, things go more smoothly.”
He did not have lunch and he did not have coffee with Larry and he did not get promoted. Now, there’s a possibility that that wouldn’t have made the difference, but he came back to me later and he said, “Why? Why didn’t I have lunch with Larry? What would it have cost?”
I think he really was so confident of his ability and his skill set that he didn’t take into consideration that there are often status issues and power issues and ego issues. And every organization has them and you have to be aware of them. Even if you want the credit for achievement yourself, you can always get at least part of that, but you need the help of somebody else who knows the ropes.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious. What was Larry’s power that the young man didn’t see it? What’s inside story on Larry, if you can share that with me?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: I would say that Larry, not only being a very tall, large person who was imposing, Larry was not afraid of anyone. He was helpful to people but only if you sought his help. He was extremely well-connected, highly regarded, didn’t take a lot of challenges from anybody without meeting them. He had seen bosses come and go and he stayed and he had a lot of influence.
Stephanie Francis Ward: It sounds like perhaps Larry was someone who would tell you what you need to know whether you want to hear it or not.
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Well, yes. I would say that would be Larry. Yeah. I worked with him fairly closely so I had to learn how to disagree with him without being terribly disagreeable.
There was a time when he said to me, “You know, Reardon? This issue is non-negotiable,” and he was used to people walking away so he turned and began to work again and I said to him, “Now, what aspect of it is particularly non-negotiable for you?”
He said to me, “Now, Reardon, there you go. I just explained to you that this was non-negotiable,” and I said, “Yeah, but I’m particularly interested in why and what aspect?”
I thought he was gonna hit me but it turned out very well because he said, “All right. All right. You won’t give up, will you? All right. I’ll tell you.”
And then, we were able to find a way forward from the situation being non-negotiable. Very often, people just didn’t bother but I knew that he respected people who had the information to support what they were bringing to him.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you think sometimes too, it was hard for people? Say, you’re dealing with a supervisor or someone who has a lot of power in the organization who maybe is not very pleasant or tends to blow up at questions and that is very off-putting but sometimes, if you just keep on asking them the same question politely, they will back—they’ll soften or they’ll retrench or they’ll back down. Do you think that’s true?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: It can work depending on the person, but there’s also the possibility of stepping back and saying, “Something is going on here. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but you and I are just not clicking today, so I’d like to address that before we either move forward or we talk about this another day.”
So sometimes stepping back is also good to try and deal with the emotional content. There may be something going on that has nothing to do with you. It may have been a meeting that this person had an hour before or 10 minutes before. It may be a lack of sleep. It could be they’re in a bad mood.
Just by bringing it to their attention that there’s something that’s going on that you might need to deal with can cause that person to reconsider their emotional state at the moment and maybe be less resistant.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. That’s very good advice. Back on asking specifically for things that you want to have, I think that there are many studies that show people tend to react differently to women asking for things for themselves in the workplace than they do for men who ask for things for themselves in the workplace. What can employers do to address that issue?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Well, I think the first thing is that an employer should be aware that research is clearly shown that we are—and I’m talking about women and men—generally less comfortable with women who talk about themselves. This is a problem, because if you don’t talk about your accomplishments, nobody gets to know what they are.
I remember being in one law firm where a woman said to me, “What I’ve seen is that the women attorneys come back from court or wherever they’ve been working on a case and they go into their office and start the next pile of work rather than stopping by the water cooler or chatting with anybody about what they just were able to do.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: Bringing in pizza. Yeah, all those. Yeah.
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Right. Yeah. Talking with people over lunch, almost as if what you’ve achieved will somehow speak for itself. And generally, that’s not the case in life. And I’m not saying that men can go around boasting all the time saying, “Oh, this is what I did today and let me tell all of you about this.”
It’s just that our tolerance for women talking about their accomplishments is historically—and continues to be—relatively low and so you need to learn how do other people do it. How do people get this information across? Is it that they meet with somebody like Larry and they talk about it over lunch and Larry shares it with somebody else? Do they have an angel? Do they write an end-of-the-year memo or updates to that memo during the year in which you describe what your team was able to do, which also reflects very well on you? And do you sometimes just let people know what you’ve accomplished and let the chips fall as they may?
Because you can’t—even though the research may show this, I’m not suggesting that that means everybody should be demure, but you really do have to find ways to get the word out, let people know. Hopefully, you have the kind of boss that does that.
And employers, as you asked me, what can they do? During meetings, they can say, “I’d like to hear from Jessie today. She just finished a great case and we can all learn from it, so Jessie, tell us about it and don’t be modest, because we wanna pick up some tips here.” That’s the kind of boss you need. It benefits everybody and it gives women a chance.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I think sometimes we want promotions or better compensation packages and so frequently, I think people are afraid to ask because they don’t want to be told no. That includes for lawyers, even litigators, who it’s their job to advocate. What’s your advice on that?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Well, I’ll tell you another little story about a woman who I brought in to speak to my classes and she was saying that she was kind of a fan of the word “no” in her organization, because she always felt that the people she was working with were a little bit more obligated to give her a yes later—that she was willing to take a “no” not as the last word, but as the bottom step to getting the yes.
And so there’s that to consider is that sometimes a no is “here’s a reason for the no and if you can get at that reason, if you can get specifics out of the person as to why the no came, then you can negotiate and say, “Well, if I achieve those things between now and, let’s say, May, I’d like to come by your office again and revisit this topic,” and usually, people are receptive to that kind of thing. I think it’s kind of awkward for somebody to say, “No, don’t bother coming back. The answer will be no then too,” after they’ve given you specifics on which you can make a difference.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Interesting. So a no is not necessarily how we see no. A no doesn’t mean no.
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: No is part of life and it doesn’t feel good, but if you’re prepared for it, it’s like when I was told, “That’s non-negotiable,” or other times when people say, “No, that’s just not going to happen.” You don’t have to receive that as a “Forget it.” You receive it as an opportunity to learn why, and then once you get those specifics down, you can make a difference.
And you have to have conviction. If you want to get a yes, women need to have the conviction that they should be asking for this; that this is not a favor; that this is based on information, comparisons, achievements, all that you need to bring with you. Because you don’t go in and ask for a raise or anything on the basis of, “Oh, I think it’s about time I got this,” or, “Wouldn’t it be nice?” It’s all based on what matters to that organization and have you done the work to make yourself three things: visible, central and relevant, like the old VCRs.
If you’ve made yourself visible doing tasks that are valued, not being a good camper and doing everything you’re asked. Doing things that are valued. Being central, meaning being connected, networking with people, not carrying a coffee cup around and bothering people but when it matters. And doing relevant things, things that advance the goals of the division or the organization. Those are all ways to help you move from “no” to “yes.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: Interesting. Well, professor, we are just about out of time for today. Would you like to leave our listeners with a last little bit of advice about advocating for themself at work?
Kathleen Kelley Reardon: Sure. I think it’s very important for all of us to remember that we’re creatures of pattern and that we’re at least 75 percent responsible for the way that people treat us. And so that means that the best communicators, the best persuaders, the best negotiators are people that recognize what they are contributing.
Are there ways that you come across? Are there stylistic issues? Are there issues about your age? Is there influence due to your gender or habits that you’ve learned because of your gender?
These are all important things to consider, because if you know that you’re 75 percent responsible then you won’t start making a case for whatever you want by just creating a beautiful case. You’ll realize that it’s very important for you to have the conviction and the capacity to persuade the person in front of you, and that the burden of proof, so to speak, is on you.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Well, thank you so much and listeners, thank you for joining us. I am Stephanie Francis Ward and you have been listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.
[End of transcript.]
Updated on Dec. 1 to add the transcript.