Doing your fair share in the workplace: How to respond to someone else’s first offer

At some point or another, by choice or by assignment, most of us will start a work project with someone we don’t really know. Having launched such a project, a perennial question quickly blooms: “Who will do what?”

Making sure you do your fair share—no more, no less—is far from easy. But it’s negotiable!

For the purpose of today’s example, suppose you work in an organization (it doesn’t really matter what kind), and your boss has asked you to complete a big, difficult, time-consuming project (again, it doesn’t really matter what kind) with a peer named Sally from another part of the organization. You’ve just met Sally, exchanged some pleasantries, and scoped out the project. Now, the perennial question is blooming, the crickets are chirping, and both of you are looking at each other deciding whether to make a suggestion.

If you read the previous post on toddlers, you already know that the best response is probably to offer a suggestion in the form of a first offer. But you won’t always have that luxury. At least some Sallies will move first. Today’s post will discuss what to do if you have to move second—that is, how to respond to a first offer, particularly if:

  1. It sounds really good, or
  2. It sounds really bad.

So what do you think? What if Sally proposes a division of labor that seems embarrassingly easy for you and uncomfortably hard for her to accomplish? Stupid question, right? Shouldn’t you just say “absolutely” and call it a day?

Not so fast. My coauthor Adam Galinsky and his colleagues have shown that immediately accepting an advantageous offer is not such a good strategy. Why? Well, put yourself in Sallie’s shoes. What does she think if you—with a gleaming smile, even before the words have entirely left her mouth—enthusiastically agree to her division of labor on this big, difficult, time-consuming project? She thinks: “&$%#@*.” A bit more scientifically, she has what’s called a counterfactual thought: “I must’ve really made a stupid offer if you were so happy about it and eager to accept it.” Amazingly, Galinsky and colleagues’ research shows that you can not only make Sally happier by negotiating with her (and thus allotting even more work to her); you can also do better for yourself.

Now, please don’t get carried away with this strategy. If you think Sally actually made a mistake in her proposal, you should instead try to correct it. You still have to work with her, and you still work in the same organization after all. Or, if you think it would be greedy and unethical to push her harder, then don’t—just make it look like you’re putting up a fight. But, whatever you do, the research suggests that it’s a bad idea to accept someone’s advantageous offer gleefully and rapidly.

Now on to #2: What if Sally proposes a division of labor that seems uncomfortably difficult for you and embarrassingly easy for her? Well, here, your intuition may be a slightly better guide. The best advice I can offer is a two-step process:

  1.  Chuckle or laugh, making a not-necessarily-funny joke to cut through the tension. In the summer, for example, I often joke that the owner of the building where the negotiation is unfolding must have forgotten to pay an electricity bill, as “It’s getting warm in here.” Not particularly funny, but effective for signaling the inappropriateness of the offer.
  2. Make the exact same offer you were going to make if you were able to make it first. Seriously, try to actually ignore the offer that was just made, attaching your own original offer to the end of the corny joke. Only by ignoring their first offer can you have any psychological hope of avoiding its influence.

Bottom line: when you get a first offer, whatever it is, don’t just say yes. Whether your Sally gives you an offer you love or an offer you hate, keep talking to her—knowing that you can do better or at least make her happier. Don’t get carried away and don’t take advantage of hapless Sallies. If she’s really made a mistake, tell her so and move forward under the auspices of honesty. But whatever you do, avoid the temptation to call it a day immediately after Sally speaks. That will only make Sally feel hapless, and hapless-feeling Sallies are not good—for her, you, or the project.

Have you ever made an offer that was accepted too quickly?

3 thoughts on “Doing your fair share in the workplace: How to respond to someone else’s first offer

  1. Pingback: Gratitude: Or when not to negotiate | Brian Gunia

  2. Pingback: The musings of 2015 | Brian Gunia

  3. Pingback: When to ask why | Brian Gunia

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