How to get a pay rise without ever asking for one

Matt Casey

Written by Matt Casey. Co-founder of DoThings. Author of The Management Delusion and We Need to Talk About Scrum.

February 26, 2020

Over the first few years of my working life, my pay increases were laughable. Every year, no matter how well I’d performed, my pay review was a huge disappointment.

Sometimes I’d push back and ask for more. I’d point to my excellent performance, my perfect attendance, my willingness to work whatever hours were needed, but it never made any difference. It was always “There’s a budget Matt, you have been great, but my hands are tied” or some variation of that. Most of the time this felt like a lie - the company clearly had money and I wasn’t asking for much - so sometimes I’d threaten to leave if I didn’t get what I felt I deserved.

For some reason, that never worked. They were far less worried about that than I thought they’d be. It was almost as if they didn’t realise the world revolved around me or something. Weird.

It was only when I became a manager that I realised what I’d been doing wrong. Asking for a pay rise you deserve very rarely works. There’s a much better way, and it works regardless of who your boss is. If they’re the kind of boss that has your back - this works. If they’re the kind of boss that wants to exploit you - this works. If they’ve got a big ego - this works. If they lack confidence - this works. No matter who they are - this works.

This is the closest thing to a real world cheat code I’ve ever found. Just enter in this one simple phrase, and you get more money.

It is based this one simple realisation:

You don’t ask for a pay rise when you deserve one.

You ask how you can get a pay rise before you deserve one.

For a huge number of reasons which I’ll explain, this approach is foolproof. All you need to do is say exactly this:

“I would like to increase my salary to x by the end of this year. Do you think I can achieve that here, and if so could you help me?”

Say this word for word, and you will almost certainly secure a pay rise. Pick the value that you want, whatever that is. Don’t be ridiculous, but don’t be shy either. A 10% increase is a good place to start, but if you think you’re worth 20%, go for it. Here’s why this is going to work, no matter who your boss is.

It appeals to their ego, rather than offends it

Everyone has an ego, and managers usually more than most. Whether they’re outwardly confident or not, nobody likes to feel like they’re doing a bad job. If you go to your manager and say “I deserve a pay rise” that immediately makes them feel like you think they’ve let you down. It can feel like an attack on your ability. If you’re lucky enough to have a good manager, they won’t react badly to this feeling, but a lot of them will get defensive and find a reason to say no. They’ll often suggest you were being disloyal just for asking.

If on the other hand you ask them for their help in earning a pay rise, you are appealing to their ego. You aren’t saying you deserve one already, so there’s no suggestion that they have done anything wrong. Quite the opposite, you’re showing them that you respect their ability as a manager, and trust them to help you. Let me tell you, that’s a really great feeling. The first time someone asked me for help with their career it felt amazing, and I genuinely wanted to help them for that reason alone. It can be lonely managing people, and when someone that works for you makes you feel like they trust and value you, it makes you feel like you’re good at your job. You don’t want to let that person down. What’s great about asking this question is you get to make your boss feel that way without ever sucking up to them. You’re not giving them a compliment, or even saying anything nice to them. You’re just asking for their help, but because it’s such an important thing, it implies you think really highly of them.

What you’ll find when you ask them this question is that your manager will almost certainly find a way to tell you that yes, it is possible, and yes, they will help you. The selfish egotist managers will never admit that they aren’t powerful enough to make it happen, so they’ll say yes. The selfless managers will genuinely want to help you, so they’ll say yes. Either way, it’s almost certain that you’ve laid the groundwork for that pay rise to happen.

It’s a problem for future me

Ask me for a pay rise today, and I’ve got a problem today. I’m going to have to address it. I could either put in all the work I need to do to make it happen, or I could just tell you I can’t do it. It’s easier to say no. I can fob you off and tell you we’ll do something about it in your next review. It’s much easier to say no to you than yes. I can move the problem to the future.

I’ll say No now. Future Matt can sort that out.

But ask me if it’s even possible to get a pay rise? Saying no to that creates a problem today. If I tell you it isn’t even possible to meet your salary goals here, I’m giving you a terrible message. I’m either telling you the company can’t match your ambition, or that I don’t believe in you. That’s potentially a big mess for me right now. But you haven’t asked me to do anything today, I can just tell you yes and deal with it later.

I’ll say Yes now. Future Matt can sort that out.

The Implication

Remember how I told you that threatening to leave never worked? The thing that always annoyed me about that was they were so obviously cutting off their nose to spite their face. The cost of replacing me alone was always greater than the increase I was asking for. The rational thing to do was to just pay me what I wanted. It was the cheapest and best option. But they always let me leave. Every single time. It was infuriatingly irrational.

But of course they let me leave. I’d given them an ultimatum. If I’m your manager and you give me that ultimatum, if I have to I’ll spend 100 times what it would have cost to keep you on replacing you. Every single time. Even though I know it’s irrational and I’m going to be worse off, I’ll still let you leave. And I’m quite low on the petty spectrum.

But if we’re coming up to pay review time, and earlier in the year you’ve asked me “I would like to increase my salary to x by the end of this year. Do you think I can achieve that here, and if so could you help me?”, that would be very different.

Why? Because of the implication.

You didn’t threaten to leave if you didn’t get the pay rise. You asked a perfectly reasonable question, and asked for my help. There was nothing confrontational about it. But that “here”…that’s stuck in my head. That implies something. That kind of suggests you intend to achieve this whether it’s here or some place else. I know what you want, and you know I know what you want. So if I don’t give it to you, I figure there’s a pretty good chance you’ll decide that your career would be better served elsewhere. And because you never threatened to leave - you’re far too loyal to do something like that - I don’t have the emotion of being given an ultimatum to cloud my judgement. I can do the rational thing and pay you what it takes to make sure you don’t leave.

There really is a budget!

This was annoying to realise. If you’re not a manager yourself, you might not know this, but typically this is how the pay review period works. You get given a budget at the same time every other department head does, and that budget allows for your total salary costs to increase by a certain percentage. It typically isn’t great. The last time I had a real job it was 3% in total.

Once I have my budget, I’ll go through all my people and decide who gets what. And no matter how I distribute it, by the end of the process I’ll have spent my 3%. Every penny of it.

Now, let’s say you work for me, and we walk into your pay review having never had a conversation about your salary expectations for the year. You had really big expectations, but I didn’t know that, and I have only given you a 2% increase. You aren’t happy. You feel like you deserve more, and you make an excellent case to back that up. And you convince me. I agree with you. You definitely do deserve more.

But it doesn’t matter.

The budget has been decided. If I try to give you more money out of my current budget, I have to give other people less. That would be unfair, but even if I wanted to do it, I may have already delivered a bunch of their pay reviews.

The only way to get you the increase you deserve would be to go back to Finance and ask for my budget to be increased. But then they’d either have to adjust the other department budgets, or move money that’s been allocated elsewhere to mine. That’s almost certainly not going to happen. It’s so much work for so many people and at the end of the day, even if everyone agrees you do deserve that money, you’re not going to get it. Also, me even asking that question is going to raise eyebrows. It makes it seem like I’m not managing my department well. So guess what, there’s a very good chance I’m going to say this to you:

“There’s a budget, you’ve been great, but my hands are tied”.

It doesn’t have to go this way though. You can help me help you. If right at the start of the year, you make it clear what you are looking to achieve, I can plan for it.

If I’d known what you expected before hand, I could have told Finance before they set my budget that I needed more. I would have been able to make the case that based on our conversations I was concerned you might leave if we couldn’t match your salary expectations, and that the cost of replacing you would be far greater than the increase you were asking for.

Without a doubt, I’d get that extra budget approved.

I might mess up

Not only does asking for my help appeal to my ego, it also opens another possible route to the pay rise happening. If you’ve asked me the question at the start of the year, there are two ways things could have played out by the time the review comes around. I could have given you guidance and shown you what you needed to do to secure that rise. If I’ve done that, getting it is in your control. Do the things, I’ll give you the rise. Simple. But what if I messed up and didn’t give you much help at all? If that’s the case, that would mean I’d let you down. You asked for my help, and I didn’t give it to you. So guess what I’m very likely to do?

I’m probably just going to give you the money. The chances are you already deserved it anyway.

Whether you have a boss that’s looking out for you or not, this one question will start a chain of events that will almost certainly ensure you are paid more. You will never have to demand anything, never have to have a difficult conversation, and probably never even have to actually ask for the rise.

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