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.

False anchors II: Don’t get sunk by your teenager

My latest post discussed the topic of false anchors: large numbers issued by retailers for the sheer purpose of anchoring the consumer, then creating an immediate contrast with the “sales” price. “Our amazing TV usually sells for $3000 but—today only—get it for an unbelievable $1800!” The purpose of the post was to alert unsuspecting buyers to the possibility of a psychological trap.

Well, an astute reader offered another example well worth relating, in the spirit of making life negotiable. She actually mentioned the idea of false anchors to a bunch of high schoolers, who recognized the tactic like the back of their hand. Indeed, they immediately offered an analog from their own lives. Whenever they have some bad news to relate to their parents—a D on their math exam, perhaps—they admitted they often say something like this: “Mom, don’t worry: I’m not pregnant, and I haven’t been arrested. I do have to tell you something, though: I just got a D on my math exam.”

What a perfect extension of false anchors! Teenagers, like retailers, are essentially anchoring the listener—in this case, their unsuspecting parents—on some really bad news. And shortly thereafter, they’re bringing up the real news, which is bad but not REALLY bad. In the context of the really bad news, the bad news doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Using this example to make life negotiable depends on whether you’re the teenager or the parents. If you’re the teenager, it undoubtedly works—once. It’s a good way to deliver some bad news and make it seem slightly less bad. Otherwise, why would your peers use it so often? But that’s not to say it’s ethical, preying as you are on your parents’ psychological biases. Nor that it will work more often than once. Your parents, having at least half a brain, will probably cut you some slack the first time but call you out the second time, not necessarily for the bad grade but for the well-worn use of a sketchy tactic.

Now if you’re the parents, making life negotiable means recognizing this tactic the first time. I can only hope that this post helps you to do so. And when you do, your response should resemble the consumer’s response to the amazing TV deal. Just as the consumer must ignore the first price and compare the second against competitors, you the parent must force yourself to ignore the anchor—in this case, the impregnation or incarceration—and focus on the real point—the D. Then evaluate that D against whatever standard you usually use to evaluate grades, not the prospect of grandkids or bail bonds. And, while calling Best Buy to tell them you spotted their false anchor won’t get you very far, telling your kid you spotted their tactic will probably go a ways toward nipping it in the bud in the future.

Have you ever dropped a false anchor as a teenager or detected one as a parent?