There are many reasons to ask for a raise: a better offer from another employer, rising cost of living, or simply wanting your pay to match your skills and experience. Even if you know you deserve to be paid more, you may find that negotiating makes you anxious—but why does this happen, and what can we do to make sure we succeed regardless?
Neuroscience has the answer. When we enter a salary negotiation, stakes are high. In response, we secrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that affect our brains and bodies—a reaction commonly known as the fight-or-flight response.
You may also be dealing with insecurity and self-doubt, wondering if you really deserve that higher pay. When we feel stressed, these negative thoughts can take over, and cause us to unwittingly weaken our case.
Based on a recent CNBC article on salary negotiation, we’ll show you 5 common phrases to avoid when asking for a raise, and provide 5 science-backed alternatives to use instead. Understanding the science behind which arguments are most likely to be successful can help you overcome your doubts and boost your chances of getting the raise you deserve.
You’ve probably heard advice that being direct helps your case in a salary negotiation. This is true, but coming off as confrontational can do more harm than good.
A 2016 study by neuroscientists Kaplan, Gimbel, and Harris suggests that when a person’s beliefs are challenged, they are more likely to defend their beliefs than to change them, regardless of the facts.
While their study focused on politics, the takeaway applies everywhere! Being suddenly confronted with the fact that your pay is too low can put your employer on the defensive. This statement tells your employer you’re unhappy, but doesn’t tell them what would fix that besides “more money.”
So why do many people avoid giving a number when asking for a raise?
This is where our doubts and insecurities come in. We’re afraid of being told that we don’t deserve the amount we’re asking for, or afraid of angering our employer by asking for too high a number. Giving an open-ended request like this is ultimately an avoidant behavior.
The key here is to be specific. Do some research to see what other people working similar positions are making, and what other employers pay workers with your level of experience. This will help you work out what salary range you can reasonably ask for.
According to neuroscience, how we perceive the person making a request will subconsciously affect how likely we are to agree. You’re more likely to succeed if you come off as confident, knowledgeable, and professional, and if you present your request as an issue to solve together instead of a matter of you vs. them.
Author Eric Barker summarizes this concept beautifully: “Don’t start with why they’re wrong, start with common ground.”
Once you have an ideal salary range worked out, you’re ready to bring that request to your boss! Here are some ideas:
Confidence matters, and saying “I think” weakens that impression! Remember, your emotional state and the way you present yourself will affect how others perceive your request.
Put yourself in your employer’s shoes: Would you be more likely to hear out someone who thought they should get a raise, or someone who knew they should be making more based on solid research? We know who we’d take more seriously!
So, from a neuroscience perspective, why do we feel the need to add qualifiers like “I think”? Once again, this is an avoidant behavior resulting from pesky doubts and insecurities, and from an increase in stress hormones and the activation of the fight-or-flight response. If we feel like we don’t deserve to be paid what we’re worth, that makes it harder to advocate for ourselves in salary negotiations.
Qualifiers like “I think” are used to soften a statement and avoid a negative reaction. This is especially common among those who deal with negative self-talk or feelings of insecurity. But keep in mind that this kind of avoidance can sabotage your case!
In order to succeed when asking for a raise, it’s important not to let your stress, anxiety, and insecurity show in your arguments. As we stated above, people are subconsciously more likely to agree with those who display confidence and professionalism.
The research you’ve done is your closest ally here. You don’t think you deserve a certain salary range, you know you do based on your research, so let your argument reflect that. Remember, this is a negotiation between professionals based on facts, not a battle of opinions!
Some readers might have rolled their eyes here: You can’t help feeling stressed and anxious during the fight-or-flight response. It’s neurological, not rational! But that doesn’t mean your employer has to know how nervous you are.
Just because you don’t feel confident inside, doesn’t mean you can’t display confidence outside!
Some examples for what to say instead of “I think” include:
Similar to the previous example, this wording doesn’t work because qualifiers like “I hope” weaken your statement. Wanting to add these is normal when you’re stressed and feeling defensive, but understanding the underlying causes of the instinct can help you overcome it!
You know how much you should be making, so why give the impression that your request for a raise is a “hope” rather than a request to receive what you should rightly be paid?
Many of us who soften our requests this way deal with “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that we don’t actually deserve our success, or to be paid the correct rate for our work. This kind of internalized negative self-perception can be explained neuroscientifically.
Health issues such as depression or anxiety stemming from chemical imbalances in the brain can worsen imposter syndrome, and many people with ADHD or other conditions that affect productivity deal with imposter syndrome when they succeed in their careers. In other cases, imposter syndrome is simply a result of negative self-talk, and acknowledging these thoughts is key to overcoming them!
Remember how we touched on the way a person’s self-presentation and emotional state can affect how others view them? This idea applies here as well, and once again confidence is key to getting what you want from a neuroscientific perspective.
Even if your research is watertight, a person’s conscious thoughts are only one aspect of how our brains process information—the biochemical processes that affect how we perceive others happen mostly beneath our notice.
A 2014 research paper by Sripada et al. suggests that our brains direct our motivations primarily unconsciously, and that regular “supervision and intervention” by the conscious mind is the reason we don’t just follow our instincts 24/7!
Stating that you’re hoping to be paid a certain amount makes your case seem weaker than it actually is! If your employer declines to grant the raise, they may feel like they’re saying no to something non-essential that you want, rather than what you deserve to be paid. Therefore, to maximize your chances of getting the raise you deserve, present your case with confidence!
Remember, you’re not a kid asking for more allowance money, you’re a professional asking to be paid a fair rate. Some examples of effective salary negotiation phrases are:
It’s a very common practice to try and negotiate a better deal with your current employer before accepting a higher-paying job offer, especially if your current job suits you better! Furthermore, many employers will negotiate a higher salary in order to keep a great worker, instead of hiring someone new they’d have to train. It also benefits them to keep a good worker away from the competition!
In fact, some people will use this tactic even if they don’t have another offer lined up, but if the conversation goes badly, you could be left without a job.
Why can this statement turn salary negotiations so sour if using a better offer to negotiate a raise is such common practice?
As we quoted from Barker earlier, “don’t start with why they’re wrong.” Threatening to quit puts you and your boss at odds, making them less likely to come around, instead of helping you find a solution that makes you both happy.
There’s nothing wrong with bringing up an outside job offer in salary negotiations! However, the best course of action is to use it to show your boss how giving you a raise would benefit them too.
A 2014 article by Matthew Robinson in Scientific American examined the evidence for whether our neurological makeup is inherently selfish or altruistic. While tentatively concluding that humans carry a mix of both traits, Robinson points out that a lot of cooperation between humans stems from self interest. An employer granting a raise to keep a good worker on board is a great example of this.
Therefore, if you have another offer, frame your request for a raise through the lens of wanting to stay where you are. If your employer keeps you on board and you get the pay you deserve, you both win.
Some examples of positive ways to use an offer from the competition in your salary negotiation are:
This sounds like something you would say at the end of a meeting where you’ve been turned down for the raise you’re requesting, but it isn’t the best way to wrap things up.
Hearing “no” in a salary negotiation can be tough for those of us who deal with negative self-talk. It can make us feel like we didn’t really deserve a raise after all, and that we shouldn’t have asked in the first place.
As we’ve already stressed, the way you say something has a major effect on how others perceive your statement. The phrase above is a tacit agreement that the conversation is over.
It’s normal for a person who should be making more for their time and expertise to ask for a raise, and to expect your pay to gradually increase over time as you gain experience. Therefore, the key is to frame your exit from an unsuccessful salary negotiation as putting the conversation on hold, rather than abandoning it entirely. This leaves the door open to get the raise in the future.
Remember: Human brains generally operate from a perspective of self-interest! To set up a win-win situation, try to find out what would have to change in order to turn that “no” into a “yes” while benefiting you both.
Do you need more experience? If so, what kind? Is there a level of performance you’re not hitting that they think you should be?
Since interpersonal connection and professionalism matter in negotiations, it’s still a great idea to thank your employer at the end of the meeting. Here are some examples of how to do this while keeping the conversation open:
While neuroscience explains how stress can trip you up in salary negotiations, it also explains the best ways to come out on top. From presenting a solid case in a professional way, to framing the negotiation as a problem to work on together, understanding which tactics sound best to the human brain is a great way to increase your chances of success.
Salary negotiation isn’t a purely scientific thing. Many of us feel like we don’t have the right to ask for more, even if we’re being paid well below market rate for our skills and experience.
But even if your negative self-talk feels totalizing, that doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it! Learning how neuroscience can help you succeed in your career is a great way to maximize your success.
Last of all, remember that with the tips in this article in mind, you already have a better chance of getting the raise you deserve. Know that you deserve to be paid what you’re worth—and best of luck in your negotiations!
NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.
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