“I must be the worst postdoc at Harvard.” A research postdoc cited this reason for his lack of success in securing a faculty position. From an outsider’s perspective, this is pretty hard to understand, considering he went to Harvard, one of the top institutions in biomedical research. However, I often hear similar statements when I discuss negotiation strategies with junior investigators.

This mindset isn’t isolated to just the top institutes either. Many on the academic career track can easily fall prey to this thought process. Studies show that your perceived self value depends on your local environment. Most often, we use local rankings to judge our self worth, and this can affect how we communicate our value to the rest of the world. This is known as the “Big Fish Little Pond” effect.1 It has a significant effect on one’s psyche and can translate your ability and confidence in being able to do a job. This mindset can also affect your ability to successfully negotiate deals and modulate collaborations.

The ability to successfully negotiate depends a lot on self confidence. Therefore, how one perceives his status within his own environment can dictate how he will perceive relationships.

More than 50% of students drop out of STEM programs due to the intense ranking systems.2 Academic careers are marred by this effect and increasingly hold people in this mindset to feel inadequate until they’ve proven themselves. Most often this train of thought can extend well into their future career.

Most successful scientists can easily and confidently defend their work and their research. They should, because they’ve been honing that skill for a decade and a half. However, what happens when they have to switch to a new set of skills that requires them to negotiate or defend their rationale behind business decisions; finance, personnel, operations, etc? Most often they default to an insecure mindset that leads them back to square one of a little fish in a big pond mindset.

This is where negotiations or collaborations can go sour really quickly, because negative or insecure emotions can often dominate these types of conversations. This can make the other collaborators uneasy or unsure about this joint venture.

So how can one avoid this little fish in a big pond feeling and learn how to negotiate quickly? These negotiations and collaborations can easily catch you off guard.

It requires a 3 step focus and practice:

  1. Practice bargaining. Try low risk bargaining. My mother loves bargaining at our local deli. Although the price is clearly labelled on the items, she believes that they are just suggestions. She uses it as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue to negotiate with the clerk. While her success rate is only about 10-15% she feels that she has saved 10-15% over the course of her shopping experience, which actually translates into thousands of dollars. It builds her confidence in all types negotiations without being scared to engage in the uncertainty of the power dynamics.
  2. Lean in, listen, and learn. Body language is often communicated during a dialogue.We’re rarely aware what our bodies are telling the other person. My father used the lean in, listen, & learn method as part of his strategy for negotiations. My father is a former military officer and he often had to negotiate with his peers and superiors. He used this strategy to reinforce his own behavior and signal to others that he was being attentive and in active listening mode. This lets the other party know that you’re actively engaged and are listening to their side of the negotiations. It’s sending a signal of cooperations, and makes the other party feel at ease about the relationship.
  3. Solve their problem first. We often go into negotiations with the intent of maximizing our own returns; however, this strategy is a one-sided relationship that yields very little trust. Most negotiations and collaborations are relationships to solve mutual desires.Trust is a key component to these relationships Trust can be built quickly by finding a solution to the other party’s issues before your own. We should always approach these situations as an opportunity to offer solutions that we’re uniquely qualified to solve. Your offer immediately becomes more valuable and your focus becomes more confident in the choices being made. You’re no longer focused on the size of the pond, but the size of your solution.

Delivering a value based negotiation strategy is important in every career. However, it’s the perceived value of the other party that you must focus on. When you’re focused on them, you’re not focused on you and your insecurities which are psychologically taxing.

Mindset plays a big role in most successful ventures. What type of mindset do you use to get through challenging or tough situations? What type of people do you surround yourself with and why?

Leave a comment

Happy Sciencing,

  1. Marsh, Herbert W. The big-fish-little-pond effect on academic self-concept. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 79(3), Sep 1987, 280-295
  2. Drew, Christopher, Why Science Majors Change Their Minds, TIMES, Nov. 4,2011