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VIDEO: How to use “Competence Triggers” in a salary negotiation

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The best places to people-watch are airports, clubs, and the subway. The amount of concentrated ridiculous human behavior on display is amazing. If you’re wondering why I have my sunglasses on at 2:30am at Marquee…now you know.

One of the things I like looking at is something I call “Competence Triggers.” These are telltale behavioral signs of someone with high competence — who’s good at what they do — or low competence.

For example, someone who speaks slowly is perceived very differently than someone who speaks quickly, with his eyes darting around.

And you can actually MASTER these Competence Triggers — changing not only how others perceive you, but you perceive yourself!

That’s why I love today’s question from IWT reader Guro W.:

“How do I discover the job’s pay rate and is it ok to ask at all? Lots of time they do not mention anything about pay.”

This sounds like a tactical question, but it’s actually about Competence Triggers. Because would a Top Performer ever ask that question?

Check out my video response:

Now, I’m curious: Think about the last social interaction you had. Could be a party, hanging out with your friends, even dinner with your parents.

Did anyone give off any noticeable low- or high-competence triggers? What specifically? Leave a comment below.

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  1. Once again, you’ve helped me start start my day with a laugh. Low competence/high competence behavior is an often over-looked concept. Thanks for the reminder and for the great video!

  2. What do you do if they ask you about your current and expected salary?

    I always tell them Ramit’s line of “let’s talk about salary later but now let’s see if this job is a good fit for me and I am a good fit for it” but it never works. A typical recruiter/HR person says that they must know at least my expected salary to see if they should proceed further. At that point I have no choice but to ask them what their budget is and give them some clue as to what I am expecting.

    • I have run into that as well. The HR person just stops the interview at that point and won’t move on to any other questions. Is there a good way to handle that sort of response?

    • If you run into this scenario I’ve always said “That’s a good question. What’s the current range for the position?” Then pick the high end. 🙂

      The other thing that I’ve noticed is that if it’s an external recruiter asking they are just looking to find a good/quick fit. They are usually “on your side” because their goal is aligned to get you a higher salary since they often make a percentage. That’s a win-win.

  3. You have a lot of arm hair.

  4. I agree I was just in the initial phases of the interview process and used all of Ramits rebuttals and the response the recruiter gives me is “give me your salary information or thank you for your interest.” This is at multiple Fortune 500 Organizations.

    • My experience is similar – whether I’m interviewing directly with a company or a recruiting agency, the conversation always comes around to “what salary do you expect?” and nothing less specific than a fairly narrow range – say a $10,000 band – will allow the interview to proceed. When I use Ramit’s line (which I first learned some time ago), the response is always “no, we need to know what salary you expect or we can’t proceed from here.”

      I’ve tried to turn the situation around by making a pre-application enquiry about the salary “to help me judge whether the role is at the right level of seniority for me” or something similar, but that rarely generates any useful information either.

      The only exceptions are the too-rare occasions where the organisation includes the salary or salary band in the job description or ad.

    • I have a very specific, word-for-word followup if this happens. It’s in my Dream Job course.

  5. Being able to follow the thread of a conversation is a pretty basic one, I’d say. Rabbit-trailing too fast seems like a teenage girl behavior.

    Appropriate levels of eye contact. Not enough seems distracted, too much seems creepy.

    One interesting indicator to me is “What does this person display irritation regarding?” Getting irritated easily about petty things (not just jokingly) is a big red flag in my book. If they’re paying that much attention to irrelevant details, how much brainspace do they really have left for the important issues?

    All three of these are ‘relevancy’ indicators, I guess. Does this person ‘get it’? Do they understand what’s important? Too many flags in these areas, and I won’t be able to trust their judgment, even if their intentions and integrity are spotless.

  6. Thanks a lot Ramit… High competence/low competence triggers duely noted

  7. Just had coffee with a co-worker I met for the first time who was giving off a number of high-competence triggers:

    1.) Mentioned working cross functionally on a project she owned [i.e. her work is bigger than just her team]
    2.) Mentioned de-prioritizing work because it was lower value [i.e. she is in a position to pick and choose work based on value]
    3.) Asked to pick my brain about an area I have worked on in the past and then followed up 15 minutes after our coffee with other stakeholders on copy [i.e. she is expanding her knowledge and she follows through]

    • Hi Chris Clark: I liked your comment. Could you clarify something for me, please? In your 3rd point you wrote “on copy”. I have never heard nor read that phrase before and would appreciate some context. Thanks

    • Hi Juan,

      I think what “Chris Clark” means by “on copy” is that the “other stakeholders” were cc’ed on the message.

      I could be wrong 🙂 But that’s my best guess.


  8. I went to a book discussion group where we’d all read the same book. As each person discussed the book, there was a noticeable difference between participants. Some people spoke softly, looking at the table, or in brief glimpses at others, and made very “wishy-washy” statements about the book to the extent it was unclear whether they actually liked the book or not. Then they sat back and just listened. Others addressed the whole group, clearly, but not aggressively, stating personal likes, dislikes, etc. Then they openly engaged in discussion throughout the session.

    The first group of people seemed to feel lower competence in expressing their opinions. The latter group seemed to feel completely competent in expressing their opinions.

    • Especially fascinating that they’d ALL read the exact same book, yet their competence triggers revealed totally different levels of understanding/mastery. Great example.

  9. I don’t agree this is true with Sales positions, especially higher paying positions. In my personal experience, I have recruiters contact me about “great” opportunities for “top tier” performers that have total comp packages 25 – 50% below market. When I’m open to searching or might want to recommend a buddy, I always ask “what’s the general expected range of comp for this position?” Or something similar (OTE, etc.).

    Otherwise you waste everyone’s time talking to some cheapskate company that’s looking for a “deal”. My 2 cents.

    • Totally with you Bryan. Those guys and the companies they represent are just saying BS. True “top tier” performers won’t undervalue their worth. And the best companies know this and will compensate handsomely for high quality sales people. In the end, performance is everything.

  10. I pulled a high competence trigger recently at work. I discussed a one-day commitment with an executive at my company. We reviewed the expectations about what I’d be doing, for how much time, etc.

    Then when I saw my direct boss the next day, I said something like “Oh, I told so-and-so that I’d be happy to work on that project next month. I didn’t discuss compensation with him, but i figured that [XXX] was reasonable. What do you think?” She said “Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about it, but that sounds great.”

    I got exactly what I wanted, and just threw the request out there as an afterthought!

    During that interaction with both people, I kept Ramit’s prerogative in mind — find out if the expected work clicks with what you want to do, and make compensation barely a factor. I’m excited to do this more often!