To Get Ahead, Learn the Trading Game

“Each underestimates her own power and overestimates the other’s'”- Deborah Tannen

The game of business is a trading game invented by men. From an early age men learn to trade with each other– yesterday’s baseball cards or action figure become today’s business deals.

According to psychologists, girls form close ties with the goal of creating “best friends;” boys are perpetually forming and reforming “loose” ties in order to play games or trade things. Men barter information, influence, access, support, even secrets as the way to build relationships, establish trust, and achieve mutual benefit. As women move into leadership roles and increasingly male spheres of influence, they need to learn the art of trading. You don’t have to be best friends to initiate a mutually beneficial relationship. You just need to have something of value to trade.

And you don’t have to be the very best at something in order to begin asking for what you want. Women hang on far too long to the idea that their success should be the natural outcome of doing good work. We learn this in school where girls excel at pleasing the teacher and having their homework done. At lower levels of authority in organizations, this may be enough to keep your supervisor happy. But failing to develop trading relationships can leave you vulnerable when reporting structures and organizations change, which they do continuously. Understanding how to play the trading game is key to advancing your career – and keeping your job.

  • Speak Up:  Too often, women expect their work to speak for them. Although women score higher in countless measurements of leadership in organizations, they aren’t making it to the top in part because of their reluctance to promote themselves and capitalize on their relationships.
  • Get Connected:  According to Catalyst, executive women list “exclusion from informal networks” as a major obstacle to women’s advancement. Rather than feeling excluded, women need to take a much more active role in building loose networks with people to expand their presence and gain support.
  • Trade Up:  Too often we hesitate to network with folks above us because we’re afraid we won’t bring enough to the table. Yet leaders say what motivates them most is being able to help others. When you ask for advice from more senior folks you are giving them a gift. It really is “lonely at the top.” Leaders complain of being cut off from people below them. What knowledge, perspective, connection can you offer from your part of the organization?
  • Ask for what you want: Getting a no won’t kill you. And don’t simply take no for an answer. Trading is about asking as well as offering. If your trade doesn’t work with one person, it will probably work with the next one. If you get a no today, you may get a yes tomorrow.

Unsure of the cards in your trading deck? Here’s a quick journaling exercise to help you define and shine your value proposition:

1. Describe a recent accomplishment that you are proud of.

2. What did you do? (actions)

3. How did you do it? (qualities)

Looking at your answers, then compose a one-sentence headline that defines your leadership.


1. I coached a woman leader to knowing her value

2. Listened, asked questions, shared insights

3. Empathy, enthusiasm, creativity

“I am an empathic and creative coach helping women know their value” 

Once you find it, try it on for size! Practice saying it to friends, colleagues, and higher ups. Make communicating your value a new, good habit.

Unsure of how to begin a networking conversation? 

Try out this simple starter:

Who do you know who…?”

You may be surprised what mutually helpful connections are just a person away.

 Beef up your trading game prowess!

For more tips & tricks check out out She Negotiates.

See Leslie Grossman’s Ted Talk on the power of an entourage.

Want the good news? For bi-monthly news and inspiration on what is working for women in business today, subscribe to The Next Level for Women’s Advancement’s Newsletter, High Wire Acts!

Authored by Brigid Moynahan, President of The Next Level, a management consulting firm dedicated to advancing women leaders and promoting inclusion.