Influencing by volunteering

In organizations, tasks often arise that no one really needs or wants to do. An agenda needs to be developed; a Google doc needs to be compiled; a memo needs to be written. If it doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s job description or fall squarely onto anyone’s plate, getting it done obviously requires someone to take the initiative.

Sometimes, someone volunteers—presumably out of goodwill or a desire to take this task rather than the next one. At least as often, though, a whole lot of people play musical chairs in hopes of quickly finding a seat. Even setting aside the goodwill or desire to avoid the next task, though, these opportunities offer an often overlooked opportunity to make life negotiable.

To see how, let’s take a brief walk through the world of negotiation research.

Taking such a walk, you’ll quickly encounter the first offer effect: the finding that the person who makes the first offer tends to better achieve their objectives. Dig deeper into the effect, and you’ll find that it’s grounded in one of the most robust findings in all of psychology: anchoring, or our tendency to make ambiguous judgments by focusing on whatever information happens to be before us at judgment-time. First offers matter because the second offerer uses them as a point-of-reference.

What in the world does this have to do with organizational tasks? Well, taking the initiative often amounts to making the first offer. In other words, avoiding the inclination to play musical chairs often allows you to put your own stamp on the agenda, the Google doc, the memo. Since somebody has to develop the agenda (which will inevitably influence the topics and their order), somebody has to compile the Google Doc (which will inevitably influence the facts considered and how), and somebody has to write the memo (which will inevitably influence its tone), it might as well be you. That way, you’ll claim at least some of the organizational influence so many people claim to eagerly covet.

Now, like any advice based on any decision-making bias (e.g., anchoring), you’ll have to use this one with extreme ethical caution. While it’s true that somebody has to do the stuff above, if you do it with devious intentions, you’ll not only curtail your influence—you’ll eliminate any semblance of goodwill. So don’t omit a key item from the agenda, key fact from the Google Doc, or key finding from the memo (for example).

And you’ll obviously have to be selective, volunteering for the tasks where you care rather than everything that crosses the transom.

Act ethically and choose selectively, though, and you may find your influence starting to wax. Because the fact remains that somebody has to do it. If you care about it and can find the time, it might as well be you.

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