The Perils of Confrontation

push-backWe have all observed others who seem to be advancing their careers by methods of active confrontation or who continue to demand more with apparent results.  However, do not always believe what you hear or think you see. Often what is happening behind the scenes is far different. Remind yourself that it sounds much better and ego-supporting for someone to tell you that they received something by putting their foot down or showing that they would not be pushed around. To say they simply laid out accurate and well-supported reasons, and then politely asked for something they thought was fair, does not make for an exciting story.

One illustration of a misplaced understanding of confrontation is a conversation I had as I began writing my new book Within Your Grasp.  I was outlining for a high-ranking female publishing executive my belief that women in particular fall prey to the belief that confrontation is a necessary part of career advancement, and that I believe it unfortunate that women are so often counseled (and encouraged in the media and by career-advice books) to be more aggressive in this regard. She turned on me sharply. “You have no idea,” she said. “Why, when I was offered this job I thought the salary they proposed was low by $10,000. I went back to them and said I thought it should be higher by that amount. So they came up $7500. Only when I went back and this time got tough and really showed that I was not happy did they raise it, and only then to $8500. I had to get very firm with them for that extra $1000.”

As she was telling the story I was thinking that in all of the compensation or transaction negotiations in my career, I rarely received 75% of an increase I asked for. If I got 60% I felt it was a victory, and several times I split the difference at 50% and came away feeling good about it (and sometimes I accepted much less than 50%.) She had received 75% right off the bat, a sign of respect in my view from her new employer. Now she did go back and make a further demand, and was rewarded with an extra $1000. But as I left her I wondered at what cost? Did it hurt their opinion of her as a team player? If someone who seems better qualified comes along, will her superiors feel less loyalty toward her?

Reasoning and appealing to fairness are the best approach, and they do not compromise your efforts to cultivate your finest abilities and share them generously with those around you. To me the executive above had achieved an impressive 75% increase, probably by just being herself, but then created unnecessary future risk by believing she had to use the tactics or demeanor of someone she was not.

The limits of a confrontational stance are many. It retains its power only for the short-term. While it may establish you as an individual to be reckoned with, that itself becomes a problem. It shifts the logic of your case to you alone. Further, once you have laid out your string of demands, you may be stuck. You risk backing yourself into a no-retreat position, and you could end up defending things extraneous to your goals. Thinking realistically and then thoughtfully asking is a far better route for most of us to take.