The writer is associate professor in behavioural science at the London School of Economics and founding director of The Inclusion Initiative
Everyone pauses for thought before booking in a conversation with their boss to ask for a pay increase. This will be true both for those who confidently ask for what they want, and those who balk at asking for more. This pause may in fact be valuable, as there are some simple ways you can plan ahead to tip the odds in your favour and ensure the process goes smoothly.
Workplace performance can be difficult to measure, especially if you work in creative or “knowledge” industries. This means that, even though you may have a long list of data points and accomplishments to show your boss, you also need to polish your storytelling ability.
Why? Because humans are hard-wired to listen to stories — we’ve been doing it forever. We also remember them. So by creating a simple narrative about your pay request, you are giving yourself the best chance of getting a manager’s attention when you request a salary increase.
In a world of information overload, a smartly honed story will allow your manager to remember why you have added value as a staff member long enough to ensure you get your fair share of the pay rise pot.
The next step is to develop the narrative for your pay discussions. It is worth paying attention to the “peak-end rule”, meaning that the peak and the end of a conversation are the most memorable parts. Pay conversations will go better if they focus mainly on two significant accomplishments. This is particularly true if your boss manages a big team, which normally makes it more difficult for you to stick in their mind.
When choosing your two accomplishments, one should capture your best performance last year and the second should look to the year ahead. Pay talks need to be polished, memorable and information overload-free. You should also set out your expectations on what the pay rise might be. Setting an early anchor in the conversation provides a mental reference point for your manager to refer to when deciding the award level.
Imagine yourself beginning a conversation with your manager on pay. Start with the usual greetings, settle your nerves and establish a collegial tone. Start by stating the level of the pay increase you are expecting. If you are asking for an increase of less than 10 per cent, state the percentage increase — single-digit numbers frame the request as a small one. Otherwise, ask in monetary terms.
Follow on with several punchy points on the added value you have brought to the organisation in terms of numbers. Think: 100 satisfied converted customers rather than 100 pitches given, or 100 risk incidents averted rather than 100 policies written. Basically, focus on “added value” over “process indicators” when making your point with numbers.
Now for the hook. This represents the peak of the conversation so it needs to be memorable. Pick your biggest accomplishment, and go deep into the detail. Highlight the obstacles that you moved to make the outcome happen. Emphasise the value created, and point to all visible and invisible evidence which illustrates that. This evidence should include glowing reviews from clients, or details of the added monetary value if you have an income generating role. This isn’t a monologue, though: encourage questions and respond to feedback thoughtfully.
Pay rises aren’t all about past output. You deserve a pay increase based on your potential, too. Now you should vocalise your plan for the next year. What exactly are you going to do differently when this year has been so productive? It’s time for a commitment of “more of the same” or, if you can pull it off, “more of the same but better”.
Pay request hacks based on behavioural science
Remember the peak-end rule in story telling
Choose two significant accomplishments as the focal points of your pay conversation: one to illuminate the peak of your pay conversation, and the other to close it.
Get precise in listing your accomplishments
Always use the actual amount of ‘added value’ you have given your employer when using numbers.
Leverage comparisons if you are underpaid
Benchmark your work by making salient comparisons between your earnings and the salaries of comparable peers (both internal and external).
Talk about what you plan to do next year
Declare that you will do “more of the same but better”, and provide details.
Stroke your boss’s ego
Highlight the time they save by having you around, and the big accomplishment you plan to achieve in the coming year that will make them look good.
Pay attention to the timing of your meeting
If your boss is doing pay reviews for lots of colleagues, going first is best if you think your performance is stellar.
Save the accomplishment you expect to achieve in the next year for the big finish. Elevate your ending by being clear on how this accomplishment will help your manager, either in terms of saving them time, or making them look good. Even humble managers will appreciate an ego stroke.
End by circling back to your pay request, and express gratitude for the opportunity to have this conversation. If you are currently underpaid, speak to your boss about how your pay stacks up to that of peers, both inside and outside the company. Collect this data from any pay distributions your company publishes and by asking your networks. I know one person who simply asks their colleagues how much they are paid and records it in a spreadsheet.
Comparisons like these will only work if you are actually underpaid, so get real: while most people think they are underpaid, many are not. And ask colleagues you trust for a reality check on the true level of your performance before claiming you are being short-changed.
Timing matters. If you are in a large team you might have the luxury of choosing a time slot for your pay discussion. Go first if you truly are the most impressive person in your team. This way, you will benefit from the primacy effect, which causes the person who is seen first to be judged most accurately. Go last if your pay conversation relies on bluster and your actual performance is less than stellar. If you also get your peak-end narrative right, the “recency effect” will mean you stay positive and fresh in your boss’s memory.
Always avoid talking before lunch when your boss may be hungry. And if you can, avoid having the meeting during a period when your boss is suffering from negative emotions. This is where the rapport you have built with their executive assistant can pay dividends: it once saved me from a pay discussion when my manager had just learnt their spouse was filing for divorce.
If you can, pick Tuesday to have the discussion. The Monday rush is over, but there is plenty of time left in the week for your boss to feel awkward if they reject you. It is easier to reject someone on a Friday, just before the weekend break from work.
You may well get rejected, but the pain will not be as bad as you anticipate. You are resilient to life’s let-downs. Plus, the fact you have now asked for a rise sets up a higher probability of success next time around. Your boss — like almost everyone — a strong belief in the narrative that they are a nice person. Getting a “no” to your pay demand two years in a row is much less likely. Trust me — you have sown seeds that will flourish.