Q&A with Jamie Lee and Jen: What Role Does “Fairness” Play in Negotiating?

Ji Eun (Jamie) Lee will be presenting Hands-on Workshop for Negotiation Prowess at the 2013 Bullish Conference this November 29 – Dec 1.

Bullish: Hi Jamie, thanks for talking with us today. I recently attended a seminar about negotiating, and I remember hearing a speaker suggest that we keep in mind when negotiating that, after all, we’re only asking for “what’s fair.” I thought, hmmn … no. I think that’s a very stereotypically female way of thinking. While you’re asking for what you think is “fair,” men are asking for three times that. And what is “fair,” anyway? The whole idea of fairness is often used by employers to keep workers (equally) down — the pretense of democracy is used to keep from paying the highest-value employees in line with the value they provide.

Jamie: You make an excellent point regarding the “fairness” argument in the context of salary negotiation. I’ve been subject to this same argument myself at the negotiation table. Because I know this to be a negotiation tactic, my response was to not respond to it. When used effectively, silence can convey power and the willingness to walk away from the table.

Bullish: So what role does the idea of “fairness” really play in negotiating?

Jamie: To me, the idea of fairness reminds me of childhood — particularly the flawed childhood lessons in negotiation that don’t apply in the real world of work. Think of six year old Sally stomping her feet, scowling her face at her parents, and demanding for the same toys and privileges as her older sibling Mary. “That’s not fair!” she cries.

Or, in my case, growing up with two siblings meant bickering over limited resources on the table, namely food. If we had to share a pie, I would not be happy if my older sibling got the lion’s share of it. To be fair, it would have to be split into even thirds, but that was hardly the case. The bigger or faster sibling got to eat more pie than the smaller or slower one. You had to fight for more, and someone, a slow eater like me, would invariably complain that it wasn’t fair.

By the way, the field of conflict resolution has a term to describe the scenario of splitting the pie; it’s called distributive bargaining. That’s definitely not the type of negotiation I’d advise, because a professional delivers and grows the value of her company or client. She’s growing the pie, not splitting it.

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