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How to Negotiate a Solution Instead of Jumping Ship

January 31, 1995

MAYBE YOU’RE dissatisfied with your job or confused about how to get to the next level. You can always look for a new job, but who’s to say it will be any better, or will even last long enough for you to find the restrooms? Before you get wandering feet, perhaps you should negotiate with your boss to make your current circumstances more satisfying.

What? That’s not the way things are done at your company? Where have I heard that before?

In fact, that’s precisely what some people are doing these days. Call it career resiliency or career self-sufficiency or just taking care of yourself, career experts are advising people to be more assertive about shaping their work. One program that tackles that issue is the Managing Personal Growth seminar devised by Blessing/White, a Princeton, N.J., management consultant. A number of companies, including Alumax, Amoco and Johnson & Johnson’s LifeScan division, have sent employees through the program.

The key benefit from my perspective is that the program teaches employees to take the initiative in negotiating their futures with their bosses. At the very least, it has prompted improved performance reviews at some of the participating companies, with more involvement from the worker and a greater emphasis on career enhancement. And any improvement in that often-demeaning and rarely productive process would certainly be welcome.

Based on conversations with Blessing-White, managers and employees who have participated in the MPG program and career experts, here’s a step-by-step guide to improving job satisfaction. Anyone can do it, with a little diplomacy and a stiffening of the vertebrae.

1. Develop a plan. What do you want and what do you need to get there? What would make your job better? Make sure your plan makes sense for the manager and the company, or it won’t happen.

Sometimes, a small adjustment can yield big results. Susan Taylor, then a clerk in Amoco’s microfilm department in Calgary, Alberta, was surprised to learn through an MPG evaluation that what she really wanted was more recognition from her boss. After discussing it with her manager, Ms. Taylor received more positive strokes, was happier with her work and eventually was promoted to staff assistant.

2. Be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t ask for things you can’t get or aren’t capable of doing. After Alumax’s employees and managers completed the MPG program, says Jim Guerin, a national sales manager, several subordinates left the aluminum company after deciding they weren’t cut out for sales. Similarly, Jo VandenBrink, a supervisor in distribution for Amoco, decided that her personal life and marriage were more important than taking night classes and fighting for promotions.

3. Schedule a formal meeting with your boss to discuss your plan. Keep it separate from the performance review to emphasize that this is your show, not your manager’s. ``In performance reviews, the manager drives the discussion; the employee is submissive,″ says John P. Geraci, Blessing-White’s executive vice president. ``In MPG, the employee is driving the process.″

4. Ask for your boss’s analysis of your skills and potential. Make sure you’re on the same wavelength by ``playing back″ what the manager has told you.

5. Offer your view after hearing the manager’s, emphasizing not differences of opinion, but areas where further discussion is needed to increase each other’s understanding. In other words, don’t be argumentative, and keep working at it until you reach a satisfactory compromise. Part of the agreement between employee and boss in the MPG program is that they must reach some compromise when they disagree, says Scott Owens, an area sales director for LifeScan, whose employees have participated in the program. Some managers have even gone an extra step and negotiated formal contracts with subordinates, he adds, which outline goals and set out how to measure their achievement.

6. Once you’ve negotiated your plan, seize any opportunity to advance it.

Mr. Owens recalls one woman who wanted to transfer to the trade sales unit. So she kept track of trade sales meetings and called people in the division to wangle invitations. She developed contacts, learned what she needed to do to succeed in the unit and eventually was transferred.

7. Initiate interesting projects that solve problems for your boss, develop new skills for you and bring you into contact with key people.

8. Don’t expect radical change in a minute. Be willing to take it a little at a time.

Chuck Chartier, a senior regional manager at LifeScan, says he emerged from the MPG seminar with a better idea of his immediate goal: becoming an area sales manager. A more in-depth discussion with his boss, Mr. Owens, led to agreement that he needed to improve his leadership and strategic planning skills, which he did by taking American Management Association courses. Subsequent talks prompted him to take courses in finance and communications to polish necessary managerial skills.

And Mr. Owens, with a better idea of his employee’s goals, was able to arrange for him to participate occasionally in company meetings that usually were restricted to area sales directors. These gave Mr. Chartier a broader view of the company.

The result? Mr. Chartier got a coveted promotion in less than a year, thanks in part to the improved communications with his boss.

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