Over the years, I have assisted my girlfriends in navigating their way to professional success. Throughout this journey, I have observed many self-sabotaging behaviors women—no matter their profession, years of experience, or age—partake in that undermine their negotiation abilities. This article focuses on three such behaviors and how women can change course to reach their full potential.
Success-Sabotaging Behavior 1: “No Seriously, I Am Not Qualified”
One afternoon, I was talking to one of the most brilliant attorneys I know. We were discussing this new career opportunity. She already had interviewed for one position inside a corporate legal department, but after the interview, the company offered her two additional opportunities to consider. I was ecstatic for my friend. But after our squeals of elation, she said: “But I am not qualified for that position. I have never done that before. I need to tell them . . .”
At the risk of being impolite, I had to interrupt this budding self-sabotaging behavior with three leading questions: You provided your resume, right? You told the recruiter about your experience before you were selected for the interview, right? You spent hours interviewing with in-house counsel who obviously understood the company’s business model and the qualifications of the open positions better than you, right? My girlfriend blurted out laughing because she recognized what she was doing—she was talking herself out of a wonderful opportunity! This highly accomplished attorney with over 20 years of professional experience could not complain that someone was undermining her qualifications or opportunities. She realized in real time that she was sabotaging herself!
Here is another example to consider: I was told by a colleague that a male associate at her firm decided he wanted to become an expert in a certain specialty. So, this ambitious young man started on a journey to become an expert by writing a book. You read that correctly, he was going to write a book about others’ legal acumen and work product so he could market himself as an expert in the field. His book is now the “go to” resource in that field, and he is recognized as the expert. Kudos to him for his hard work, dedication, and focus to become a specialty expert. Yet this story generated a “chicken and the egg” question for me that I believe as women we all need to consider: Would we consider ourselves an expert after writing a book about what others accomplished or only after garnering years of experience in the trenches and then writing the book?
We normally identify this self-sabotaging behavior when we talk ourselves out of applying for a transfer or new position. Many women have created this unreachable definition of “qualified” that requires us to not only meet, but surpass, every single prerequisite identified on a job description with an expert level of experience before we even consider applying for the position. For ourselves and our girlfriends, we need to support one another and put an end to this self-sabotaging behavior that ultimately undermines our ability to lead.
It’s a simple fix: Send the job description to a trusted advisor and ask her if you are qualified for this position. Have a colleague walk you through the prerequisites and ask you to identify direct and indirect work experiences related to the position’s tasks. Identify transferrable skills that are relevant and can compensate for areas where you may not have experience. Only then can you make an educated decision as to whether this is the right career move for you.
Success-Sabotaging Behavior 2: “I Accepted the [First] Offer”
I have been across the table from some fierce women negotiators when they are advocating for their clients. However, even for me, the pressure rises when our personal interests are at stake. Statistics establish that women do not opt to negotiate as much as men, and some articles actually suggest that women should not negotiate because it goes against societal norms and negatively impacts our future coworkers’ perceptions of us as we transition into the new role. Other theories say that women who are not good at negotiating do not participate, and if they were forced to, they would not necessarily nab the same career gains as men. That is like telling a woman she should not play basketball until she can dunk. Our daughter should not try out for the school play unless there is a guarantee she will get the lead role. Would we ever tell our son not to try out for the baseball team unless he could become the starting pitcher? Absolutely not.
We need to take the two following oaths to put an end to this self-sabotaging behavior of being grateful and accepting the first offer with no questions asked. First, agree that you will negotiate some terms of your next job offer. There is always some part of the package to negotiate—salary, title, yearly bonuses, benefits, signing bonus, start date, business development opportunities, office space, parking, additional training to be certified in a particular area, or political support to be named to a local organization. When you receive your next offer, take your time to analyze it. Talk to your colleagues (male and female) whom you trust to give you sage advice on the counteroffer you should submit. There are no perfect offers, and there is always room for improvement.
Like you do before presenting your opening statement at trial, practice reciting your counteroffer out loud, over and over again. Be measured in your approach in delivering your counteroffer because this is not an adversarial exercise and requires finesse. Be wary of falling into the trap some women do of over-explaining, for example, why she has earned a signing bonus or why she needs to push her start date out a few weeks. Those behaviors are just as undermining. Instead, stand in the moment and confidently make your counteroffer. Then stop talking so your employer can respond. Remember, this is probably your employer’s first opportunity to see the strong negotiation skills you will bring to the table for your clients. Make it count.
The second oath is for you to be there for your girlfriends through this process. It is truly uncomfortable at first because you feel vulnerable when you step out and tell someone what you want. When you hear your girlfriend is interviewing for a new position and receives an offer, promise that you will advise her to evaluate the offer and submit a counteroffer. Have her practice saying the counteroffer out loud until she owns it. Then, be ready for the best part—celebrating her success!
Success-Sabotaging Behavior 3: “I Trust You Will Take Care of It”
Sometimes, we blindly hand our career decisions over to others we trust because we believe they have our best interests at heart. For example, we believe our purported supporters are fighting for us behind the scenes in those secret partner meetings or during the legal department’s succession planning meeting. Then, we look up years later and we have been passed up again for that salary increase, promotion, opportunity to sit first chair at trial, or making partner at the firm. We all know these stories.
In these instances, it is easy to point the finger at others when our career goes off course. But you are responsible for negotiating your career path. Our personal “board of directors,” “sponsors,” “lifters,” and “mentors” can provide advice and counsel, but in the end, the tough decisions are ours to make. When you are chartering your own career course, you will eventually be called to step out of your comfort zone to reach a level of success that you never anticipated. When those opportunities arise, you will be ready to handle the self-sabotaging behaviors identified in this article so you can negotiate your own path to success.
We all can become better negotiators with a little practice. The first step is abolishing the self-sabotaging behaviors standing in the way of reaching new heights of success that are out there waiting for us.
Amy M. Stewart is a founding partner of Stewart|Bradbury PLLC, a minority and women-owned defense firm based in Dallas, Texas.