A subtle technique for getting uncooperative people to help
  • leadership
  • Blog post

A subtle technique for getting uncooperative people to help

Ideally, work colleagues would always be receptive to requests from co-workers. After all, everybody shares in the organization’s successes and suffers from its failures.

But as you may have noticed, we don’t live in an ideal world. And in the real world, some of our colleagues — hopefully not many — tend to be more uncooperative than helpful. You might even call them “porcupines,” who bristle every time they’re asked for something even a little out of the ordinary.

If a person like this reports to you, you can use positional authority to get your request taken care of. But frequently, you’ll be asking people in other departments or higher on the corporate ladder for help. How can you win over the porcupines in such cases?

A borrowed book

To answer the question, consider first a true story from Ben Franklin’s autobiography.

Franklin wanted to cultivate a relationship with a prickly political rival. He tried engaging the man in conversation. He tried flattery. He tried favors. Nothing worked.

And then he hit on a different strategy. Instead of trying to do a favor for his rival, Franklin asked for one. He sent a note asking to borrow a rare book. Surprisingly, his rival sent the book over right away. Franklin read the book and returned it, along with a thank-you letter. The next time they saw each other, Franklin’s rival approached him warmly. They went on to become good friends.

That’s more than a charming tale. There’s a powerful psychological force at work, and researchers have demonstrated it under a variety of conditions.

The research study

In one study, for example, researchers hired an actor to pose as a scientist administering psychological tests to student volunteers. The actor did his best to get the students to dislike him.

At the end of the study, students received a small stipend. In one group, the rude “scientist” handed the students the money, then asked if they’d be willing to donate it back to the lab, which was facing funding cuts. For another group, a neutral figure – a secretary – asked for the donation. In both cases, all of the students said yes. But that wasn’t the point of the experiment.

The next day, both groups filled out a questionnaire about their lab experience, including their impression of the rude scientist. The students in the first group — the ones who gave the money directly to the scientist — liked him more than the ones who gave their money to a neutral figure. In other words, when we do a favor for someone we don’t like, we start to like them more.

Revising opinions

Psychologists have an explanation. It starts with the fact that all of us want to act in a way that’s consistent with our opinions — to maintain a consistent self-image. Otherwise, we feel like hypocrites.

But what if we end up acting in a way that turns out to be inconsistent with our opinions – say, by giving money to someone who’s treated us rudely, or lending a valuable book to a person we don’t like? We can’t undo the action. So to maintain the consistency of our self-image, we must go back and revise our opinions to fit our actions.

Ben Franklin put his rival in a tough spot. If he didn’t lend the book, he’d seem ungenerous — which didn’t align with his self-image. But if Franklin was a creep, why do him a favor? The only way out of the dilemma: The rival had to change his opinion of Franklin.

The same thing happened with the students in the experiment. If they didn’t give their money back to the cash-strapped lab, they’d feel like cheapskates. But they couldn’t give money to a jerk. So they elevated their opinion of the scientist.

The right kind of favor

You can use this same technique with porcupines. If you can get them to do you a favor, they’ll like you more. But not any old favor. If, for example, you ask your grumpy controller to expedite processing of your expenses because you’re going on vacation, you just seem like a pain in the neck.

You need to ask for a different kind of favor – one that includes three elements:

  1. It must be personal – something that is within the other person’s power to grant, and something outside the normal course of business.
  2. It must be worthy – a request that will make the other person feel good about himself if he says yes and bad if he says no.
  3. It can’t require too much time and effort. Otherwise the other person has an easy out.

Here are some examples:

“Tony, my aunt is thinking about getting a reverse mortgage on her house.  You mentioned that you’d recently gone through this with your mother’s house. Would you be willing to take a call from her and tell her about your experience?”

“Anne, I know you’re something of a wine connoisseur. Could you help me pick out some good wines that I could send customers for the holidays?”

“Jonathan, I noticed you’re connected on LinkedIn to Samantha Davies at Barrett Industries. Would you be willing to introduce me to her?”

Each of these requests gives your prickly colleagues a chance to do something worthwhile.  Which means that if they agree to the favor, they’re more likely to see you as someone who is worthy of the favor – and, therefore, also worthy of their friendship.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Working With Other Departments: How to Win Over ‘Porcupines’.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research study: Jecker, J. and Landy, D. (1969). Liking a person as a function of doing him a favour. Human Relations, 22(4), 371-378.

 

 

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