What March Madness Can Teach Us About Salary Negotiation

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: April 4, 2013

Under Pressure

Pressure. It can take many forms.

Imagine you’re just 21 years old and a senior in college. You’ve got a massive final exam that accounts for the majority of your grade, and it’s the final class in your major. While you’ve invested considerable time and effort studying, you know it all comes down to this.

Now imagine that you also play on your college’s basketball team, and you’re playing for the national championship. You’re down by 1 with a few seconds left, the crowd is going insane, and they swing the ball over to you. As you launch your jump shot in front of millions in this pressure-packed situation, it all comes down to this. Sink the shot and you’re the hero, come up short and you’re the goat.

Can You Handle It?

Believe it or not, negotiating your salary can bring with it the same amount of pressure. You’ve worked incredibly hard to get to the point where a company is making an offer, often suffering through a long bout of unemployment. Your mind might be anxious and your palms are sweaty. You know if you answer the questions effectively, the result could be the raise or title that you covet, but if you melt under pressure, you may have lost your best chance to earn what you deserve.

Will you be able to handle the pressure?

As the top college basketball teams across the country vie for a national title during March Madness, a correlation can be drawn between salary negotiation and the intensity of playoff basketball.

The Difference Between Stress & Pressure

About 15 years ago I got to meet Rick Pitino when he was promoting his book Success is a Choice. Pitino is among the most successful college coaches in tournament history, bringing three different schools to the Final Four.

I specifically remember a chapter from his book that made the distinction between pressure and stress. He said, “Pressure is always there in some form. It’s in all of our lives, whether in the workplace or in our personal lives… You can either see it as something stimulating and exciting – something you can use as an ally – or you can worry about it and have it negatively affect your performance.”

On the other hand, stress is the enemy. “Stress appears when you’re not prepared, not focused on your job. It shows up when you’re cutting corners. Stress occurs when you are being asked to do something you’re not sure you can do.”

So clearly, what’s the best way to deal with the stress of a test, an interview, or a game-winning shot?


For jobseekers, that means that you first need to get in the right mindset. Accept the fact that this is going to be a stressful situation, but know that with extensive preparation you can greatly increase your confidence. Next, you need to know what your value is on the marketplace. There are many ways to do that, from Salary.com’s wizard to tapping into your social network to determine your value.

From there, you should continue to prepare documentation to support your case. Accumulate more than enough information to present, including examples of successful projects, budget savings, and management leadership examples. Go through it again and again until you can easily and confidently recite the key points of your accomplishments.


Finally, like any good college team, you need to practice. I recently spoke at SXSW on the topic of negotiation, and told the audience that I prepared for my dream job interview for several weeks, and practiced my negotiation scenario for 8 straight hours. The next day, an attendee who had seen the speech came up to me and said that it had really hit home. At first he thought that 8 hours seemed ridiculous, but when he thought about everything that was on the line, it made perfect sense.

Grab a friend, a colleague, a spouse, and go through your routine again and again. Have them play the role of both friendly HR and confrontational HR. Let them ask you any questions they like, switching it up each time to make sure you are confident you can respond to multiple situations on the fly.

Then when the time comes, you’ll be ready. With the right attitude, when you feel the conversation steer into talk of compensation, you won’t be anxious, you’ll be excited because you’ve prepared for this moment.

Let Salary.com Help You

The clock is winding down and the ball is in your hands. Will you be stressed out, or be able to handle the pressure? Salary.com can help.

The first thing you should do is research, so you're able to come to the table armed with the knowledge of what your job is worth. Use our free Salary Wizard below to find out what's a fair salary for your position. You can enter your location, education level, years of experience and more to find out an appropriate salary range before you negotiate.

Good luck.