Walking into your boss’s office and asking for a bump in salary
is one of the more challenging workplace conversations you can
Whether you succeed of course will depend primarily on the
substance of your argument. Can you make a clear and compelling articulation of the
extra value you’re providing to the company that isn’t
reflected in your current compensation, and offer proof that
other employers are paying a higher rate for people with your
skills, responsibility and performance? Like a court case, you
need to marshal the facts, assuage doubts, and win over the
judge—or in this case, your boss.
But as in a court case, the way you present your
argument and carry yourself will play a role, too. You need to
be calm, confident and assertive, and do it in a way that
doesn’t put your supervisor on the defensive.
That’s why getting psyched up for this conversation can make a
difference. Here are three tips to boost your odds of success:
Reflect on your highlight reel: Increase the
odds of bringing your A-game by recalling a few moments from
the past when you were at your best. Sports psychologists
sometimes create video reels of an athlete’s best plays to
watch before games. In my own work as a writer, I often re-read
a favorite article I’ve written before I start writing a new
one; if I’m doing a radio or TV interview to promote my work,
I’ll often listen to an old NPR appearance where, due to the
magic of editing, I sound unusually articulate.
What constitutes your own best moments will depend on the
nature of your work, but it’s worth taking time to identify a
few and find a way to relive your own highlights—even if it’s
just recalling them in your imagination just before the big
meeting. Choosing moments that fit the context can help: If
you’ve had success in previous difficult conversations with
this same boss, try to relive the moment in your mind, as if
watching an instant replay. That can help prime you to do it
Listen to your pump-up song: Watch pro
athletes when they enter the locker room, and they often have
headphones on. In baseball, batters hear a snippet of their
“walk-up” song as they approach the plate. They do this
because research shows the right music can have a motivational
effect; one scientist goes so far as to call music a “legal
performance-enhancing drug.” To find your song, focus on both
its musical qualities and the emotional association you may
have with it. (Did it play at your prom, for instance?) And
recognize that people’s taste in psych-up songs can be
idiosyncratic. One state government administrator I know used
to listen to the soundtrack from “Annie” before contentious
meetings, because the happy, upbeat songs put her in an
optimistic mood that helped her collaborate.
Consider a beta blocker: It’s natural to feel
nervous before a difficult conversation. Many of the symptoms —
the dry mouth, shallow breathing and sweating — are caused by
the surge of adrenalin your body releases in response to
stress. This puts your body into a fight-or-flight response.
One solution to consider is asking a medical professional for a
prescription for beta blockers, a class of drugs that reduce
the body’s response to adrenalin.
Although few professionals like to advertise their reliance on
a drug to reduce the anxiety of public speaking, it’s not
unusual to find people taking them before important talks or
presentations. I know friends who’ve taken beta blockers before
a particularly nervous-making conversation with a boss or
colleague, and after obtaining a prescription, I’ve taken the
drug myself once or twice before important interviews. The drug
does seem to reduce the physical signs of nervousness, though
how much of that is due to the placebo effect is hard to say.
None of these tactics will help if your company is going
through a budget squeeze, your boss happens to be in a bad
mood, or the underlying logic of why you’re underpaid is weak.
But if the facts and context are on your side, using these
techniques to adjust your mindset before the conversation can
make a difference.
Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review
and the author of “Psyched Up: How the Science of
Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed” (Portfolio, 2017),
from which this article is adapted.