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A negotiation professor from Harvard’s 7 rules for getting a raise

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  • Michael Wheeler has been teaching classes on negotiation at Harvard Business School for nearly three decades, and has written several books on negotiation.
  • He argues that there are seven rules for effectively asking your boss or HR for a raise.
  • These rules include getting aligned on performance standards, including other forms of compensation in your discussion, knowing your priorities, having a stretch goal, setting your “walk-away” point, preparing a rebuttal, and being excited rather than anxious when entering the conversation.
  • For more advice, he recommends reading “Negotiation at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains” by Deborah Kolb and Jessica Porter and “Thanks for the Feedback: Even When It is Off-Base, Poorly Delivered, and, Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.
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A 2017 survey conducted by Jobvite on 1,531 working US adults found that nearly three quarters of job seekers failed to negotiate their pay in their current or most recent position. And according to 2018 research published in Harvard Business Review, while women were found to ask for raises as often as men do (contrary to earlier research that found women either don’t ask or are less assertive negotiators), women were less likely than men to receive a salary hike as a result of their ask.

To solve this problem, who better to ask for advice on how to maximize negotiating confidence, power, and results than Michael Wheeler, who has been teaching classes on negotiation at Harvard Business School (HBS) for nearly three decades? 

The veteran professor of management practice, who is retired from the HBS MBA program, currently teaches Strategic Negotiations for the Executive Education Program at HBS and Negotiation Mastery, a 40-hour interactive course that he created with HBS Online. The course has been taken by leaders, managers, and students from more than 100 countries.

Wheeler also has written several books on negotiation, including “The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World.”

Wheeler prefaced his negotiation advice by noting that even if you feel you deserve a raise as a result of having contributed to your organization’s success — and even if your company is having a banner year and you’re overdue for an increase — it’s not likely that your boss is going to just “surprise you” with a bump in pay.

“That’s not usually the way it works in the real world,” said Wheeler. “You’re going to have to negotiate to get what you deserve. And that may not be easy.” 

With this in mind, here are the HBS negotiation master’s top seven rules to improve your chances of hearing a “yes.”

Wheeler emphasized starting the conversation by “setting the table” for the negotiation: ensuring that you and your boss and/or other salary decision makers such as HR “are on the same page in regard to performance standards” that would make you eligible for a raise.

“Back when you landed your present position, you should have confirmed the performance review process and the metrics by which you’re about to be judged,” explained Wheeler. “Since then, you may have learned whether the actual standards differ somewhat from the stated rules.” 

Either way, Wheeler stressed the need to put the horse before the cart by seeking a raise only when you have “mutual agreement on policy.” 

Michael Wheeler

Michael Wheeler.
Courtesy of Michael Wheeler


“If that’s not the case, you’re in for heavy lifting,” he said.

If you didn’t receive any details about the performance standards you’d need to meet to get a salary bump, it’s important to request them in writing ASAP and ensure that you meet the standards before you make your ask. Wheeler also advised getting your supervisor to “nail down the time and criteria for your next review and promotion.” 

Once you know what you need to do to justify your raise, then be sure to keep careful records. You need a paper trail to show how and when you’ve met each standard — but be careful about the tone you use when you create this ledger.

“You should have been building your case [for a raise] as your work has progressed,” said Wheeler. “That requires walking a thin line. Don’t be shy about noting your successes, but be prudent. You don’t want to look like a self-promoter.”

Wheeler advised employees to use periodic updates in writing to help document your case. “Memories of conversations are imperfect,” he said. “Having things in writing may help if your boss happens to leave [the company].” 

He also suggested leveraging a collaborative approach toward proving your worth. 

“Earn the support of your colleagues,” said Wheeler. “They can best confirm your intangible, but critical, strengths at relationship building and team leadership. Doing great work isn’t enough. People must know that you do it.” 

The way you frame your goals around salary negotiation matters, according to Wheeler. 

“You’re planning to ask for a raise? Stop right there,” he said. “That’s the wrong way to think about it. Instead, you should be looking to improve your compensation more broadly and to enhance your success going forward.” 

The professor emphasized the importance of considering other forms of your total compensation package as part of what’s on the table during your negotiation, such as benefits, bonuses, flexible work hours, travel budget, or education reimbursement.

“If you’re working somewhere like Boston where traffic congestion is atrocious, then flex time should have real quality-of-life value,” said Wheeler. “Same for securing the resources you need to do your job well or getting authority to launch new initiatives.” 

Having more potential bargaining chips than just higher pay means figuring out which components of total comp are your highest priority. Therefore, taking time before your negotiation to determine what’s essential — and what tradeoffs you’re willing to make — can help ensure that you emphasize the points that matter most to you, said Wheeler.

“Having multiple issues on the table will enable you and your boss to craft a creative agreement that generates value for you and your company,” said Wheeler. “But you need to reconcile your priorities … it’s much better to resolve them in advance, not on the fly in the middle of negotiation.”

Wheeler offered the following examples for how to think through prioritization.

“Let’s say that at least once a week you’d like to spare yourself the ordeal of commuting. How much is that worth to you: $100 a month, $300, more than that? Here’s another: How big would a performance bonus have to be for you to prefer that over a guaranteed 5% salary increase?”

Research from Adam D. Galinsky and others has shown that making an aggressive first offer can literally pay off. As Galinsky writes in Harvard Business Review, “Take the perspective of the seller: More extreme first offers lead to higher final settlements … In addition, an aggressive first offer allows you to offer concessions and still reach an agreement that’s much better than your alternatives.”

Whether you’re talking about throwing out the first number or your strategy later in the negotiation, Wheeler noted that “negotiators with lofty goals tend to get better outcomes.” With this in mind, he suggested going into your negotiation by picturing “a great deal, something that’s a long shot but just might happen if the stars are perfectly aligned.”

Wheeler also advised employees to take proactive steps to “make the [negotiating] landscape more favorable” for them — for example, by landing a key client or resolving a vexing dispute.

Considering the baseline of what you’ll accept and knowing your range of other possible options are critical components of negotiating.

“Remember that not everything is negotiable,” said Wheeler. “There may be a gap between the most your boss will offer and the least you’re willing to accept. You won’t know precisely the upper boundary of what she will okay. But you’ve got to determine — at least provisionally — where you’re ready to draw the line, if need be.”

Wheeler’s negotiation model involves carefully weighing the pros and cons before you sit across the table from your boss.

“The measuring stick is what you will do if there is no deal,” he said. “The better your non-agreement options are, the more you can demand (nicely, though, of course). On the other hand, if your prospects elsewhere are shaky, you may not get what you fairly deserve. What will you do then?” 

If the latter is the case and a dearth of better opportunities means you need to accept less than you know you’re worth, Wheeler suggested that you “do your best to stifle your resentments.” 

Instead of ruminating about it if you do reach a stalemate, Wheeler advised that ambitious employees or job seekers “start looking hard for another place where [their] talents will be better rewarded.” This may include building up your credentials or getting personalized coaching from a friend or colleague on how to negotiate your next position.

He added that being prepared for a possible disconnect in the salary discussions can give you a clearer sense of how your skills are valued and will enable you to “calibrate your walk-away more accurately.” Taking this proactive step can help you “know whether making a change would be exciting or unsettling (maybe a little of both),” said Wheeler.

Wheeler also mentioned the possibility of sharing with your boss some information that has traditionally been considered confidential: whether you’ve received another offer. 

“If you get an attractive offer elsewhere, that changes the nature of the conversation,” he explained. “Give serious thought to sharing that information with your boss at the outset. If you’re in her shoes, wouldn’t you want to know? Tell her that you’d like to stay, if that’s the case. Ask her for advice, as well.” 

The goal in this situation should be to make it “a process of a mutual exploration, not a holdup,” said Wheeler. “Perhaps the two of you can work out a package of compensation and responsibilities that allow you to stay put and flourish.” 

Wheeler said that great negotiators put themselves in their boss’ shoes — or more accurately, mind.

“Focusing solely on your own needs and rationale can trap you into seeing others, including bosses, as obstacles to what you feel you rightfully deserve,” he explained.  

To avoid this, he suggested asking yourself, “What reasons, good and bad, might [your boss] have for saying no to your request for advancement?” adding that you should “have good answers for tough questions.” 

“This ‘expect a no’ rule will get you out of your own head,” said Wheeler. 

Building in an extra layer of “what-if” preparation gives you time to plan how you might push back if your raise request is denied. As Wheeler stated, “If [your boss] isn’t convinced of your stellar performance, cite the achievements you’ve documented.”

“Let’s say you’re looking for some special perk, like flex time,” he said. “Be prepared for the old line: ‘If I do it for you, I’ll have to do it for everyone.’ You better have a persuasive reason why your situation is exceptional and won’t create a troublesome precedent.” 

He also advised not getting “too far ahead of whomever you’re talking to.” 

“Let them voice their concerns themselves,” he said. “Begin by describing what you want and why you want it. Then suggest that if [your boss] has some concerns, you’d like to see how you both can address them. Phrasing it in a way that opens up creative possibilities and preempts a flat ‘no.'”

The HBS veteran said that getting into a productive mindset for making a deal can be as straightforward as saying three simple words: “I am excited.”

This advice is based on proven research by HBS assistant professor and Wheeler’s colleague Alison Wood Brooks, whose experiments on how to be at your best in stressful situations resulted in the discovery that the “three-word technique” is very effective.

“It works whether you’re about to perform karaoke in front of strangers, take an advanced math test, or deal with a tough negotiator,” said Wheeler.

In her research study, Brooks told people in one group to say out loud, “I am anxious,” while those in another group were told to say “I am excited.” There was a big difference between the results in each of the assigned tasks — including negotiation. 

“[I]ndividuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better,” Brooks reported in the Journal of Experiential Psychology. This works whether you say “I am excited” out loud or give yourself the simple message to “get excited,” and allows you to “adopt an opportunity mindset (as opposed to a threat mindset),” she added.

“When you feel the first signs of tension — in your heart or in your belly — don’t try to calm down,” said Wheeler. “Instead, put that adrenaline rush to work for you. Transform it into optimism and engagement. To get what you want, you must be your best self.”

While confident that his seven steps will “give you a strong start” toward a successful salary negotiation, Wheeler encouraged any prospective salary negotiator to dig deeper through reading “Negotiation at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains” by Deborah Kolb and Jessica Porter, and Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s “Thanks for the Feedback: Even When It is Off-Base, Poorly Delivered, and, Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood.”

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