Ask Annie

How to get what you want at work

January 24, 2011: 12:00 PM ET

People make several common mistakes when it comes to negotiating at work. One of them is to push for everything at once.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Dear Annie: I am in kind of an awkward situation. I was out of work for about eight months, after having been laid off by a large commercial bank. I was a loan officer at the time, but was in the process of moving over to IT (customer technical support), which is where I'd really like to be.

Now, thanks to some great networking contacts (I was hired by a friend of a friend's former boss), I've accepted a loan-officer position at a different bank. I still want to be in IT, and I took this job just to get a foot in the door. But I don't want to look ungrateful, or seem to have misrepresented my career goals, by angling to make a move -- especially since I really like my current boss, who helped me get a better benefits package than the company had planned to offer. How long should I wait before springing the news that I really want to work in a different department? — Already Antsy

Dear Antsy: No doubt about it, this is a sticky one. The solution may well be to avoid "springing the news" on your boss, as you put it, and instead approach your move to IT in a series of gradual steps.

"Incremental negotiating -- that is, not asking for everything you want at once -- is one of the hardest things for people to learn," says Stuart Diamond, author of Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World.

"Other parties usually don't want to risk a big change," Diamond adds. "In every negotiation, think of ways to divide the process into steps. It doesn't necessarily take longer, because the alternative is often no deal at all."

Diamond, an attorney who teaches a wildly popular course on negotiation at Wharton, has coached executives at Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), J.P. Morgan (JPM), and many other big companies on how to make better deals.

One of the many down-to-earth case studies in his book corresponds closely to your current dilemma. Consider: Some years ago, Camilla Cho, who was then one of Diamond's students at Wharton, was hired right out of college by Warner Home Video (a division of CNN's parent company, Time Warner (TWX)) — but she came to realize that she would rather work in finance and strategy for Warner's media and entertainment business.

Talkback: What negotiating techniques have worked best for you at work? Leave a comment below.

However, like you, Cho knew she wouldn't be able to move without her boss's approval -- and merely asking about the possibility, Diamond recalls, "could damage their relationship and her career," especially since her boss "had given her a great opportunity among hundreds of applicants."

In Cho's words: "After putting myself in my boss's shoes, I realized that my goal of an immediate transfer was unrealistic. So I focused instead on small steps," beginning with cultivating "contacts and cross-company exposure."

Once she had gotten to know people elsewhere in the company, and figured out what she might be able to contribute, Cho asked her boss if she could spend some of her time on finance and strategy projects. He had no problem with her developing these interests and picking up new skills, as long as she kept doing her regular job.

"You can't always get what you want immediately," says Cho. "But you should be able to plot a course that will get you there eventually."

By gradually gaining experience in finance and strategic planning, Cho got closer to her long-term goal without letting down the boss who had hired and supported her. After several months, she did make the jump to the job she really wanted, which in turn led to her current role as vice president of business development for online local-news service Outside.in.

"Success depends to a large degree on how you frame the issue," notes Diamond. After all, as long as you're still doing what you're being paid for, most employers have no objection to your taking on extra work elsewhere in the company -- especially if you can make the case that what you're learning over there will make you more proficient at your current job.

So you might start by getting to know the IT folks and volunteering to join task forces or take on projects the techies don't have time to tackle. (Every department has a few of those kicking around.) Be ready to explain to your current boss how these extra activities relate to the job you have now. Then, when you see a chance to make your move to IT, you'll be even more ready than you already are -- and the idea won't come as such a shock.

Talkback: Have you ever gotten what you wanted at work by taking small steps? What negotiating techniques have worked best for you? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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