Work

How to Land a Promotion in a Recession

An expert negotiator reveals her winning strategy for asking for a raise.

Man climbing a ladder.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by RTimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Most workers have never asked for a raise or a promotion. We fear hearing “no.” We don’t know what to ask for, or whom to approach. We worry that even asking for more will jeopardize our current jobs. But studies show that in most cases when someone asks for more money or a better title, they usually get it. On this week’s episode of How To!, Alex Carter, negotiation expert and author of Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything, gives us the playbook for how to advocate for yourself at work, even during a pandemic. Getting what you want, Alex says, is not so much about pitching yourself the perfect way as it is about asking the right questions. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: Alex, your first case as a mediator was between a shopper and a New York City department store. Can you tell us about that? 

Alex Carter: It was somebody who had gone shopping for a hat for Sunday service. When she tried to pull a hat down off the rack, the rack itself came down and hit her in the head. She sustained a small cut that had been stitched up, but she was suing for quite a larger amount, more than the emergency room bill. It really came down to what she saw was the problem—that she had been really upset and afraid that this had happened and the people at the department store hadn’t really seemed to show enough sympathy.

When we walked out of [the mediation meeting], she said to me, “I can’t tell you how much better I feel. I’m at peace because somebody really listened to me.” I think we all want someone to listen to us and say we’ve been heard. Most conflicts in the world—whether it’s a shopper at a department store or two major multinational corporations that have litigation coming out of a merger—are about people not feeling that they’ve been heard.

Do you find that you get in situations yourself where you have to mediate? 

For a number of years as a young professional, I felt so much more at ease helping other people negotiate for themselves in mediation than I did advocating for myself as a negotiator. The first time I negotiated my own salary I went in in my power suit. I was really nervous. I had a range in mind and the offer came in slightly above. I ended up calling a senior woman in my field and I said, “Can I ask some advice? I’m not sure what to do.” She said, “I’m going to tell you what to do, Alex. You’re going to go in and you’re going to ask for more because when you teach people how to value you, you teach them how to value all of us”—meaning women. “And so if you’re not going to do it for yourself, I want you to do it for the person who’s coming behind you. Do it for the sisterhood.”

Before people go in and really advocate for themselves, I recommend that they ask themselves: “What is a time I have been successful in the past?” Asking yourself that question actually puts you in a more powerful, more creative, more flexible state that’s going to help you do better when you do go into ask for yourself.

What’s the next step once you’re actually at the negotiation table?

I think a lot of people think negotiation means a transactional back-and-forth over money, that it means haggling and being kind of aggressive in order to succeed. I teach that negotiation is steering relationships, whether it’s with your manager or your kids at home. One of the tips that I always give you is make what’s called an “I/we ask.” In other words: “Here’s what I’m requesting and here’s how we are all going to benefit.” When people want to be placed into managerial positions, it’s in their interest to self advocate, because not only do you create the ability to do value for the company, but you show people what kind of manager you will be. Show them how you can lead on behalf of the company like you led on behalf of yourself.

When I negotiated my salary that first time, I said, “Here’s what I’m asking for. Here are the ways in which my experience and what I’m going to bring to the table more than justifies that ask. And here are all of the reasons why you want to give me the job at this level because here’s what I’m going to bring that no other candidate in your pool brought.” They offered me more immediately. In fact, if I could go back now, I would’ve negotiated another couple rounds because I think I could have hung in there more. Sometimes people are surprised to know that when you work up the courage to ask, people are expecting that on the other end. They expect people to advocate for themselves. And so more often than not, if you ask, you’ll get a “yes.”

How do we calibrate the risk of when we’re asking for too much? 

I think people overly fear the “no.” When in fact, a lot of times if you persevere, you can get past a “no” simply by asking a question: “Tell me your concerns.” And sometimes we assume that silence is a “no,” when really the silence may have nothing to do with us. If we check in and say, “I know that there’s a lot going on. I wanted to make sure our conversation didn’t get lost. So what would be a good time for us to talk again about my future at the company?” On the one hand, things may be difficult financially now. On the other hand, isn’t this a time when your company should spend every dollar they have wisely? And why not spend it on somebody like you who’s proven that you can be successful even in the midst of a pandemic?

Sometimes when I’m talking to people and they’re worried about advocating for themselves, I remind them about what kind of world they want their kids to live in. Thinking about how they would advocate on behalf of their kids really focuses them in summoning up the willpower to go out and to make their own dreams come true.

When it’s a group that traditionally has been excluded from some of those conversations, how does your advice change? 

If people have less power for whatever reason, I advise them to seek allies and practice something called amplification. This is a strategy that was used in the first Obama White House where women were outnumbered among Barack Obama’s senior staff. The women noticed that when they were in the room a woman would make a point and then a man would make the same point and everybody would say, “Oh, Bob, what a great point” and centered the discussion around Bob. And so what the women started doing was one woman would make a point and then another woman would raise her hand and say, “I just want to echo Lily’s excellent point.” In other words, they would speak her name and they would give her credit. And by working together to amplify each other’s voices, they actually started gaining the attention of Obama, who called on women more often. They gained gender parity in the White House in the second term.

To hear Alex coach our listener toward landing a promotion, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.