Make it easy for them!

Scarcely a day passes when we don’t need a coworker to do something—respond to an email, review a report, run an analysis, take a web survey, or offer a status update. So deep is our dependence that we’ve developed a sophisticated repertoire of strategies for eliciting others’ responses. Some of the most popular:

  1. Persuading them: Reviewing the 12 critical reasons why they really need to respond to that email.
  2. Exhorting them: Underlining, emboldening, italicizing, CAPITALIZING, or ALL OF THE ABOVE-ING to drive home the urgency of reviewing that report.
  3. Scaring them: Painting a subtle or not so subtle picture of the dire consequences associated with the absence of that analysis.
  4. Burying them: Reminding them about the web survey so unbelievably often that they take it just to stop the emails.
  5. Going above them: Taking your request for the status update directly to their boss.

These strategies all share the same goal: they seek to highlight the costs of non-compliance. As a result, they often produce the very same outcome: non-compliance.

So here’s a simple but frequently-overlooked alternative: Make it easy for them! In other words, try to make compliance so simple that they almost can’t help themselves. I’m here to tell you that it can make life negotiable. Some examples:

  1. Instead of reviewing the 12 critical reasons they need to respond to the email, copy and paste the email they’re supposed to respond to right below yours, preventing them from having to scroll for the next 5 minutes.
  2. Instead of EXHORTING them to review the report and referring them to the long-deleted message from 3 months ago, reattach it when you remind them.
  3. Instead of scaring them into completing the analysis, ask whether you can answer any questions about it or help clean up the data.
  4. Instead of burying them with reminders about the web survey, move the link they’re supposed to click to the subject line.
  5. Instead of going over their head to get a status update, complete the status update form yourself and ask them to verify whether you got it right.

In addition to coming across as substantially more pleasant, such strategies create channel factors: powerful catalysts of behavior. So the next time you’re thinking of making it harder for another person to say no, consider making it easier for them to say yes.

The power of why: What intransigent toddlers can teach us about intransigent colleagues

Our organizational colleagues and toddlers often have one thing in common: they seem opposed to whatever we support. Whether they “won’t back that idea” or “won’t eat that macaroni,” their intransigence is one in the same.

By learning to deal with stubborn toddlers, then, we can also learn to deal with stubborn colleagues. In a word, toddlers can help make our work lives negotiable.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from toddlers is the power of three words: “why” and “why not”. Now, some toddlers say these words almost as often as they inhale, but that’s not where I’m going. Here’s where I’m going: A common pattern among toddlers (though certainly none that I know) is to eat part of their macaroni, then refuse to eat the rest. A common response from parents is frustration, followed by an escalating battle of wills. A better response from parents are the deceptively simple questions: “why?” or “why not?” A small assortment of the real responses that I would’ve really heard, had I really known such a toddler:

  • I’m not hungry
  • It’s yucky
  • I have to go potty
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy!

Now, these responses and the questions that precipitated them are critical, as they each pave the way for a different integrative solution that should still involve the macaroni:

  • I’m not hungry (Possible solution: Slow down the meal, try again later, or mention the implications of satiation for dessert)
  • It’s yucky (Possible solution: Mix in the chunks of cheese that she doesn’t like)
  • I have to go potty (Possible solution: Excuse her from the table, then try again)
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork (Possible solution: Help and/or teach her to balance it)
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! (Possible solution: Take away the blocks and reiterate the need to focus)

Of course, none of these solutions is surefire, but all of them are better than an escalating battle of wills. But now let’s tie the toddler’s behavior back to the corporate world. Suppose you were proposing an organizational change to your colleagues; here are some corporate analogs of the toddler’s responses, along with some possible solutions from you:

  • I’m not hungry = My appetite for change is waning; these changes are coming too fast (Possible solution: Slow down)
  • It’s yucky = I just found something I didn’t like in your proposal (Possible solution: Probe that issue deeply)
  • I have to go potty = I’m distracted because of other priorities right now (Possible solution: Approach them later)
  • I’m having trouble balancing the macaroni on my fork = I’m having trouble understanding how this will work (Possible solution: Walk them through the details, perhaps in a separate meeting)
  • Look what I can do with these blocks, daddy! = I’m trying to distract or confuse you in hopes that you don’t succeed (Possible solution: Set the meeting agenda and ensure that everyone publicly agrees to it in advance)

Both the analogues and possible solutions are just examples. But I think you can see that the toddler’s behavior is surprisingly reminiscent of your colleagues’ behavior. So the three little words of “why” and “why not” can often prove useful at the boardroom table in addition to the dinner table.

Have you ever asked why (of an intransigent toddler or colleague) and been surprised at the response?

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?