The Worth Trap: Why I am “bad” at negotiation

This is generally how I “negotiate” my rates:

Client: how much will you charge for this work?

Me: what do you think is fair?

Client: says a number

Me: (if I want to do the work) ok

Although my approach may be unique, I know I am not alone in my weakness for self negotiation. Articles abound about how women have “problems” negotiating on their own behalf. The causality is usually assigned to having “imposter syndrome” or being insecure about ones “worth”, always pathologized in the women. But I believe the problem is much more nuanced.

For starters, I haven’t always been this way. There have been many times in my life where I have negotiated for the same rate as male colleagues based on knowledge that I would be doing the same job & performing better than them, as per KPIs. But each time I have been dismissed, gaslighted, and shamed for being “money hungry”. These experiences have shaped my behaviour.

Secondly, I don’t believe that there is a fixed monetary “worth” that can be assigned to a person based on their knowledge or experience. I believe value is contextual, especially as it relates to knowledge work. Sure, there are market values for consulting, but they are based on a projected value that a consultant will bring the client by doing the work. And that is often inflated.

Often the ROI for hiring consultants is not reached. But unlike a machine learning algorithm, consultants do not lower their rate after each failed project. They generally blame the client and move on, increasing their rate based on their experience. I, however, find it untruthful to “demand” a market value based on numbers that are false or not provable. And I know many other people who feel this way as well. But this does not mean we are all “bad” at negotiation. It means we do not value the same things as others.

If we dig a little deeper, an even more tragic truth is revealed. Often times, the work consultants are brought in to do could be more successful, if the consultant is not expected to deliver “magic” solely by the merit of their experience and knowledge. But it is hard to not fall into this expectation trap when exorbitant rates are involved. But often, this hub and spoke approach reduces rich dialogue and mutual learning events with the client, the consultant is too removed from reality to really add value, and the cycle continues.

This vicious cycle is one which I want to be part of solving by working closely with clients in a relationship founded on mutual learning. This means stepping away from the model where an overpriced consultant comes in to reductively solve your problems for you (& potentially creating other problems that can become someone else’s). But this means that I cannot make promises about value that I do not know we will reach. It is not because I am insecure, but I cannot play the game that I am a solitary value adder when I know scientifically, that quality lies in the relationship between my work and yours. Yet if I do not charge you a ridiculous rate it is harder to earn your respect. I want to be respected for different reasons than the rate that I charge. Maybe this is somehow tied to my gender. But I do not see it as problematic.

But here is my problem: my individual actions to “be the change” I want to see in the world do not influence the market. And the market associates value with cost. If I go into an assignment at a low rate, the level of trust and involvement follows the expected value related to the pay. Only the consultants being paid the big bucks get to go to the “important” meetings.

So today, I decided to stop making it my problem that I am “bad” at negotiation and accept the fact that it is simply not a game I like to play. I do not like doing accounting either, so I have an accountant do that. I will continue expecting that my clients see me as a thinking partner. I expect to learn from them and believe they will also learn from me. Together, we will form relationships that complement and challenge each other in order to make useful connections and growth to impact a better world and better business. But I will have an agent negotiate my “worth”, not because I do not think I have any, but because it does not interest me to commoditize it.

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Sarah Anne Freiesleben

Sarah Anne Freiesleben

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