It was at the tail end of another long, hard day in the office that I received an unexpected call from the head office in South Korea.
I picked up the phone and heard an angry male voice speaking in Korean.
“I’m fed up with your sloppy work. Why can’t you get your act together? You should be ashamed of yourself!”
With no prelude or explanation, the unnamed man launched into a tirade about performance, presumably mine. It was as if I got hit by a workplace sniper attack; the perpetrator gunning down morale from across the globe and remaining incognito. Before I could squeeze in a word in my defense or ask for his credentials, he hung up.
While extreme, this is an example of shaming and threats used in the workplace. Lisa Gates, negotiation consultant and co-founder of She Negotiates, explains this phenomenon as one of several “contentious tactics” used in the workplace, or, as she puts it, “contending to resolve conflict [or win negotiations] on your own terms.”
Like a schoolyard bully who’s older and bigger than you, the Korean manager used his position of power to shame and threaten me into “doing a better job,” with the thinly veiled threat of getting me fired. (Of course, the real shame was in the fact that he never bothered to explain what I was doing wrong or how I could do a better job. This was not a constructive conversation.)
But unfortunately, it happens all the time.
In fact, it often happens in salary negotiations.
Here’s an example I often hear about from my coaching clients: You find out through the grapevine that your salary is 20% under what your colleagues with a similar skill set and experience level are making. You know that you’ve made meaningful contributions to the organization’s goals and missions; you are a valuable member of the team. So, after careful research into market rate salary ranges for your position in your region, you decide on what you believe to be fair compensation and schedule a meeting with your manager to ask for it.
As soon as you make your request, the expression on your boss’ face turns from neutral to angry. She cuts you off and says, “Are you seriously asking for more money right now? With our sales numbers? If money is all you cared about, you should have taken another job.”
Or worse yet, she yells at you, making you feel ashamed and belittled in spite of your solid contributions.
What to Do
Now, the good news is, when you encounter shaming or threats, you have several choices. You can hold, you can return fire, or you can choose to leave the battlefield, and vote with your feet.
Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, advises people to return fire for fire, or play “tit for tat.” She says:
When you respond to insults with dignity, you penalize your negotiation partner for his outburst with a proportional punishment, and quickly return to cooperation. When he apologizes, you can turn your superior’s harrumph into your triumph in short order.
How does that look? Should the other side respond with anger or try to make you feel ashamed for having asked for more money, maintain your composure, and do not react emotionally. Calmly recognize and state what is happening.
Try something like:
“I’m surprised that you’re angry.”
“What you just said [an angry outburst, an implication that you are greedy, etc.] was uncalled for.”
“If you are trying to make me feel threatened or ashamed, I think that’s beneath you.”
Another option is to respond with silence, or even a “dead stare,” as Jen Dziura describes in an article about how years of getting hit on helped her hone her negotiation skills.
A good dead stare doesn’t let on whether you are displeased, impassively considering their offer, or wondering how they could have so mistaken the situation as to waste both your time and their own... If you do the dead stare long enough, you’ll at least get a follow-up question. Sometimes you’ll get a better offer right on the spot. At minimum, it buys you some time to think while the other person becomes less sure of [himself or herself].
Silence makes people uncomfortable. Use it to your advantage, especially if you encounter tactics aimed to shake your confidence and make you uncomfortable. This effectively is returning emotional fire for fire.
Unfortunately, bad behavior happens more than you might expect at work—especially when it comes to negotiation. But while you can’t control the actions of others, you can control your response.
Anyone, even a child, can use shaming and threats when trying to get his or her way. So approaching the conversation with tact, maturity, and poise will not only set you apart, it can help you achieve negotiation success.