Raising Girls to Negotiate: Knocking Over the House of Cards

16261997901_e132a6efd5_oIt may well be true that women haven’t been assertive enough when it comes to negotiating. But the critical problem in negotiating may not be about how assertive you are — it may be about recognizing your value to the other party.

As part of preparing for the fifth season of the Netflix drama “House of Cards”, Robin Wright, one of the two leads in the show, negotiated that she be paid as much as her co-star, Kevin Spacey. And she got what she asked for.

The timing of her request shows how smart Ms. Wright is. Had she asked for equal pay with Mr. Spacey when the series launched, she probably wouldn’t have got it. At the time of the launch of “House of Cards,” Netflix was taking a lot of chances. Hiring Kevin Spacey and paying whatever he asked for was part of mitigating that risk. The number of people who would watch the show just because Kevin Spacey was in it increased the show’s chances of success. While Ms. Wright has a significant following of fans, it seems unlikely that she would draw viewers that wouldn’t already be tuning in to see Mr. Spacey.

Increasing Your Value

However, that dynamic changed over the course of the series and you can see it just by looking at the covers of the DVD and Blu-Ray box sets for the series. For season one, the front of the box features Mr. Spacey. By season 2, however, Ms. Wright is on the cover of the sets, though seated behind Mr. Spacey and in shadow. By season three, Ms. Wright and Mr. Spacey feature almost equally on the cover of both the season 3 box set and the collected package of all three seasons.

As the covers indicate Ms. Wright became as much an integral part of the show’s success as Mr. Spacey. Losing her would have been as catastrophic as losing him (in fact, for large periods of time Ms. Wright’s character was more popular among viewers than Mr. Spacey’s). In addition, by the third season, the relative success/failure of the show was established and the risks that Mr. Spacey’s presence were supposed to mitigate were gone.

Not only was Ms. Wright’s timing right in terms of her importance to the show, the externals were supportive of her request also. Over the last few years, several embarrassing disclosures about women in Hollywood being paid more poorly than men had surfaced, creating an atmosphere where this was no longer regarded as “OK.”

Putting it all together, the time was right and Ms. Wright acted on it. But there’s more to it than that.

Getting What You’re Worth

Ms. Wright’s actions were, to quote Charles Karrass, an example of how you get what you negotiate for. Unfortunately, women in western society don’t tend to take advantage of all the available negotiating opportunities. It seems unlikely that’s due to genetics, so the issue probably has more to do with how girls are brought up. Recently, FastCompany ran an article on how to raise girls to be better at negotiating. Much of that article focuses on encouraging women to be less passive and discusses how girls tend to “lose their voice” about the age of 12 to 14.

I don’t want to suggest that assertiveness isn’t an issue worth addressing, conflict is often part of negotiating (as we discuss in Learning Tree’s one-day boot camp Conflict Management for Project Managers) — after all, if there wasn’t some conflict then there wouldn’t be a need to negotiate. It’s essential that both parties stand up for themselves in the negotiation to make sure that they are heard and their positions understood.

But I think that too much of the discussion around women negotiating tends to focus on the issue of women “standing up for themselves.” It’s easy to see Ms. Wright’s experience that way, for example. The title for one of the articles about Ms. Wright is written to support that view: “Robin Wright demanded the same salary as Kevin Spacey for ‘House of Cards’ — or she would go public” — notice the use of the word “demanded” and the threat of “going public.” But Ms. Wright’s first description of the negotiation is “I was like ‘‘I want to be paid the same as Kevin.’” — that’s “wanted” and not “demanded.” Later, in the interview, when she talks about “going public” and “making demands,” she’s in a more humorous mood.

It’s Not Always About the Money

Effective negotiation is about recognizing the value that you can provide (or are providing) to the other person and asking for something of equal value to you in return. What you have to recognize is your value to the other party; what you want is something that is equal value to you. What you’re providing to the other person might not be very valuable to you; what the other party is providing to you might be very cheap to them. That doesn’t matter, it’s your value to the other party that counts.

And I think Ms. Wright says she “wanted” to be paid as much as Mr. Spacey because she didn’t necessarily have to get that — there may have been other “things of value” that she would have accepted. For example, Ms. Wright had already negotiated for the opportunity to direct episodes of the series. Obviously, she’s very good at it — there’s only one other person that has directed more episodes of “House of Cards” than Ms. Wright. And, again, this is an example of how smart Ms. Wright has been about her negotiating strategy. Becoming one of the key directors for the show, she not only gained experience and credits that are important to her career after the show ends, she also made herself even more indispensable to the show.

Negotiating for “things of value” other than money isn’t unusual in Hollywood, Mark Harmon (who plays Leroy  Gibbs on the TV show “NCIS”) negotiated a producer’s role that gave him more control over his character and the course of the show (eventually, the show’s original producer took a backseat to Mr.Harmon); like Ms. Wright, Jonathan Frakes used his role on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to direct episodes of the series and, as a result, launch a successful career as a TV director. Thomas Gibson, who plays Aaron Hotchner on “Criminal Minds” negotiated for a schedule that gave him more time to spend with his family at his home in San Antonio. Ms. Wright might have found other “things of value” than money that the show could have offered her.

While I agree that some assertiveness is required to ask another party for something, it’s equally important to do what Ms. Wright did – recognize the value that you provide to the other party and what the other party can do for you. Initially, for Ms. Wright, it was the opportunity to direct; this time it was more money (and, I imagine, recognizing the value that Ms. Wright brought to the show, the show was delighted to give it to her). Recognizing your value, it seems to me, is as important to negotiating as assertiveness. I’ve had the opportunity to work with several women when they were revising their resumes and, if there’s any thread that binds those experiences together, it’s this: the initial version of their resumes grossly understated the value they had provided to their organizations. My contribution boiled down to pointing that out.

I don’t have a daughter. If I did, after encouraging her to stand up for herself, I’d work very hard to help her recognize the value of the contributions she was making to the world around her. I think that recognition would be as valuable as anything else I could do in making sure she could negotiate to get the things that matter to her.

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