Growing up, the local skating rink was the coolest place to celebrate your 12th birthday. Two-thirds of the way through the party, the staff (who all wore referee uniforms) would initiate a massive game of Red Light/Green Light.
To start, we would skate as fast as our prepubescent legs could carry us until a ref yelled, “Red light!”, at which point, we came to a screeching halt. The more talented among us would crouch on their skate’s brakes, poised to launch into motion at full speed at the next declaration, “Green light!”
With mediocre balance and a precarious relationship with roller skates, I was absolutely terrible at this game and found the entire enterprise extremely stressful.
Negotiating at work can feel a lot like this horror of a children’s game, except without the ref letting you know precisely when the light changes. The good news is that the cadence of your negotiation doesn’t have to be anxiety producing, and in many instances, you can determine when to initiate the conversation and when to delay it. You’re the ref!
Green Light: When to Initiate Your Negotiation
Whenever possible, initiate negotiations when your counterpart is primed for the answer you want. Ideally, you walk into the meeting confident that they have the bandwidth to consider your proposal and are generally feeling favorable toward you.
Just because you decided last night that you deserve a raise doesn’t mean that today is the day to ask for it. If there’s a huge report due next week or your boss is in a horrible mood after enduring a bunch of expensive dental work, it may not be the best time.
In many instances, initiating a salary negotiation means creating more work for your counterpart. Your boss may have to talk with HR or move around some money to make it work. If your boss is wearing her grumpy pants or it seems like she’s stretched thin at the moment, consider waiting.
In addition to making sure that your boss is in good spirits personally, you also want her to have the warm fuzzies toward you as you make the request. If you’ve just landed a big client or given a successful presentation to a funder, now may be a great time to ask for a raise. Ideally, you want to have recently demonstrated that you are an effective, successful member of the team.
Another way to evaluate when to start the negotiation is by asking yourself, “Why now?” Perhaps you’ve just achieved a professional success, received a positive eval, or taken on an expanded workload.
Red Light: When to Delay the Negotiation
Ever been in the midst of a challenging conversation, and then later (perhaps while washing your hair) have an epiphany?
When you’re in the midst of a negotiation – or a fight with your partner, for that matter – it can be hard to remember that you don’t have to keep talking until everything is decided. Stepping back can be helpful. In the moment, you may not have the presence of mind to articulate what you want or to ask important follow-up questions.
While we don’t often describe it as such, going through the hiring process is essentially one giant negotiation: you want them to hire you, but they’re investigating alternatives. When you get that job offer, it can be the perfect time to strategically delay a negotiation.
In the moment when HR finally calls with the offer, it can be tempting to cheer, “Yessssss! When can I start?” before you’ve had a chance to take a breath. No matter how much you’re jumping up and down or ready to launch the confetti, though, resist the urge to say yes right away.
Tempting though it may be, don’t yell “Red Light!” either. Instead, you could say something like, “Thank you so much. I’m excited about the potential to work together. Would you send me the offer in writing so that I can review the full package? When do you need an answer?”
This will buy you time to meaningfully reflect about how well their offer aligns with your goals and determine what questions you have.
Having awareness about timing can increase the likelihood of getting the response you want – and prevent your next negotiation from feeling like a game of Red Light/Green Light that’s completely out of your control.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.