NOT many leaders will tell you this, but being able to advocate for yourself in the workplace to advance your interests is possibly one of the biggest factors that will determine your career trajectory. Yet, for most of us, speaking up - be it for more resources, a pay rise or promotion, or just expressing your opinion - is one of the hardest things to do.
It almost seems like a gamble. Play your cards right, and the rewards are great. Read the situation wrong, and your reputation and career prospects could be at stake.
Even if the request is granted, there's an awareness of the long-term cost to your career if your negotiation behaviour was viewed negatively.
It's little wonder that employees find themselves in a dilemma over when to assert themselves and when to hold their tongue.
In a recent Ted Talk on "How to speak up for yourself", professor Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School says that everyone has something called a range of acceptable behaviour.
This range, says Prof Galinsky, is mostly determined by your power. So, if you have power, you can actually get away with A LOT. If you don't, you have little room to negotiate.
While the above is nothing new to workers such as us at the bottom of the food chain, it doesn't mean we are completely at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves.
Power relations may be key, but there are ways to make our voices heard while managing the risk.
One important part of influencing your leaders is doing your homework, says Chris Dewar, faculty director, Center for Creative Leadership.
Knowledge is power, so know who you are talking to and what they want. If your senior management is numbers-driven, you must have data in your pitch.
He says: "If you ask your boss for more resources and he says yes, you will look bad if you don't know exactly what it is you need. There's a difference between what you need and want, so know what you need, articulate why and advocate strongly for it."
Part of doing your homework is being strategic to know the rules of the game you are playing.
"Gone are the days when you can just go into your boss's office and ask for a raise. Most companies are getting rigorous, structured compensation systems with fixed cycles. Once the window closes, you might have to wait a year … timing is important."
To be assertive and yet remain likeable, Mr Dewar shared one strategy that could help: posing the request as a problem.
Once it is positioned as a problem, it allows your superiors and yourself to work on it collectively to open up more possible solutions.
This way, you are not boxing them into a spot when they have to say yes or no. This also signals flexibility, which makes a positive impression and increases your chances of getting what you want.
Another factor you should consider before pushing your interest is whether it is appropriate or relevant, says Camilla de Villiers, Asia-Pacific managing director, HireRight.
Says Ms de Villiers: "I think sometimes, younger talent believe that they have a right to get promoted. This can impact the way career conversations can take place, as opposed to the idea that you have to earn your stripes. It's important to understand your sphere of power - you must have some kind of leverage."
This means being constantly plugged in or engaged to the organisation and your leaders. The surest way to make a negative impact is to appear entitled or out of touch. As more companies prize collaboration and teamwork, a focus on solely what you want regardless of what your team actually needs is not going to fly.
But if there's a pitch that you feel strongly for, frame it in a language that uses "we" or "us" to convey that you are in sync with the organisation, and has its priorities in mind. This makes your requests seem legitimate.
She suggested approaching such conversations factually, confidently and in a constructive way with your superiors.
One element that has helped her in the course of her career to make her voice heard was to have sponsors in the organisation to support her and give her guidance, especially when it comes to seeing the big picture.
She adds: "While there must be substance at the base of it, it's about being strategic - how you play your cards."
At some point in her career, Ms de Villiers struggled with the gender gap as she realised her male colleagues got paid more than her despite her track record in that particular organisation.
"I got fed up, but I went to find out the benchmarks, the industry standards to come up with a bank of facts to present to my boss. I was not overly demanding, as I understood there was a budget and limitations. I said I don't expect it to come tomorrow, but could we agree on a trajectory?"
She said that it was a tricky time in her life as she was not prepared to resign, so she did not have as much leverage. It was framed as a business conversation which luckily turned out well.
Ms de Villiers is cognisant that in today's world, there's no job out there that's indispensable. But despite the risk involved, she believes employees must be able to stand up for themselves. "Get a mentoring buddy, build up your confidence and get sponsors to help. It's very competitive out there, people want to see someone who can talk and be engaged. If you are completely quiet you are doing yourself a disservice."
At the end of the day, the organisation will have its agenda and you will have yours. The approach you take in speaking up will ultimately determine if you are supported or persecuted, so choose wisely.
This article was first published on Jan 15, 2017.
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