Asking For—And Getting—What You Want At Work
Ready to like your job more? Follow these experts’ tips.
What Do You Want?
First, you need to know what’s going to make you happy (or happier) at work. And that may not be as simple as you think. “When people come to me, they’re almost always solving the wrong problem,” says career transition and executive coach Etta Jacobs of hermes|path in Watertown, MA. That’s in part because “When you’re unhappy, it’s hard to know what will make you happy.”
For instance, you might plan to ask your boss if you can work from home, because your long commute makes caregiver drop-offs and pick-ups a nightmare. “But maybe you don’t need to work from home,” says Jacobs, who received her coaching certification through the International Coach Federation and has an MA in organizational psychology as well as a graduate certificate in executive coaching. “Maybe you need a creative day care solution.” This is the kind of problem-solving that many coaches excel at.
To figure out what you really want and need, Jacobs suggests listing the jobs you’ve had and loved (volunteer positions count, too!), and seeing what they have in common. This exercise proved very helpful for one client, she recalls. “She had this great job, but she was miserable.” It was a secure, well-paying position in a field she enjoyed. “She was asking herself, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
When the client listed the jobs she’d loved, she realized that her favorite positions had all involved plenty of collaboration. Meanwhile, at her perfect-on-paper job, she was working on her own. The realization prepared her for an opportunity that came up a few weeks later, when she was offered a much more collaborative position at a start-up. She ended up taking the job. Now, says Jacobs, “She’s much happier. … She realized that the quality of the work, and her interactions with her colleagues, was more important to her than the status of the original job.”
“The process of figuring out what you want and need “goes very quickly if you have a coach,” Jacobs continues. “But you can also talk to a friend or a trusted colleague. Ask them: ‘What’s my superpower?’”
Jacobs defines superpowers as “your special genius, natural abilities, or the skills and talents that are so much a part of you that you don’t even notice them.” Your superpower might be coming up with innovative ideas or working well with difficult colleagues, but “It is important to ask your friends and colleagues what these natural gifts of yours are. The people around us can easily see the strengths that are invisible to us. And, since they come so naturally, we often dismiss them as nothing special.” She adds, “Jobs that make us happy are jobs that make use of our superpowers.”
“Once you figure out what you want,” Jacobs concludes, “things happen very quickly.”
Next, Start Negotiating
Compared to men, “Women have to negotiate disproportionately to make work and personal life work,” for them, declares Deborah M. Kolb, PhD. Dr. Kolb is the co-founder of the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College School of Management and co-director of the Negotiations in the Workplace Project at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She’s also the co-author of several books, including Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains and Her Place at the Table: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiating the Five Key Challenges of Leadership Success.
Negotiation allows you to effectively “position yourself as a fully functioning, happy member of an organization,” says Dr. Kolb. It’s also often vital for workplace happiness: “In one study, women who negotiated for what they needed in a leadership role received higher performance ratings, were less likely to leave the organization, and were more likely to be perceived as leaders,” Dr. Kolb points out. “It pays to win. It’s better for you, and better for the organization.” For the negotiation newbie, she offers the following tips:
Recognize opportunities to negotiate. This is something women often fail to do, Dr. Kolb observes. Negotiating isn’t just for raises or time off—it’s appropriate in many circumstances. For example, “Say you’re asked to take on a job that you don’t necessarily want, like taking notes at a meeting, or planning the holiday party,” Dr. Kolb says. Instead of instantly—if reluctantly—agreeing, in a negotiation, “You would ask if you could get an assistant, or how you could be rewarded for invisible work,” or the tasks women are often expected to do, but are rarely compensated for.
“When someone asks you to do something, you’re in the best position to negotiate,” Dr. Kolb adds.
Be prepared. “You want to have high aspirations, and the way to have high aspirations is to have good information,” Dr. Kolb declares. “Find people who have the job that you want, and learn their qualifications.” If you have solid research to back up your request, you’ll find that “asking for something feels sensible.” And if you know that your ask is reasonable, you’ll likely feel more confident, and be less likely to cave during a potentially stressful conversation.
Have creative options to propose. This is known as “anchoring with options,” Dr. Kolb says. “Say you’re not on the screen for a job, and you want it. Propose acting in the role for a specific period of time with criteria to assess your performance, or ask for the criteria used to fill the position to assess your fit.”
Anticipate and understand why people are going to say no to you, because they will! Maybe your boss is “quite happy with the way things are going and doesn’t not want to entertain your proposal. Or your boss thinks it won’t work, or thinks it might cost too much—these are all good reasons for saying no,” Dr. Kolb points out.
Finally, says Dr. Kolb, if something is really important, don’t let a single rejection end your ambitions. “Stay with it!” she urges. “You can always come back and ask again.”