• Jody Glynn Patrick

The psychology of getting what you want


When it comes to influencing people, a couple lessons on the science of human behavior and the art of direction and/or misdirection comes in handy. To show how this works, I’ve prepared two lessons – one for a frustrated manager and the other for a team member wanting an extra day off.


Direction: Getting a team beyond “social loafing”.

The term “social loafing” refers to the troubling reality that when a task or project is assigned to a group of employees, the output is of lesser quality than if the individuals had completed the task independently. The reason? A few team members do most of the work while the majority does almost none of it.


When a group project is judged as a whole, team members who are motivated by acknowledgement see no reason to extend much effort. The next dominos to fall are those in the circle who value fair play; they won’t work harder on a group project to do Jane’s share of the work, too. The “rescuers” or those who feel most responsible for results get stuck doing it all.


It’s a true and universal finding: most individuals put less effort into a group task than an individual assignment. Yet it isn’t always productive to do a project in pieces, or at the expense of “group think”, which is proven to be a very creative, beneficial process. So how can you prevent social loafing if it’s innate? After individuals are assigned to a group, make it clear that they will personally be monitored and evaluated on their contributions to the outcome. Then keep your promise. Outcomes improve.


Misdirection: For the employee who wants to take a vacation day at the worst possible time…


Here’s an example of a classic “door in the face” approach to a negotiation: The popular TV series Property Brothers requires one brother to sell a property and the other brother to renovate it. That’s how they make their money. The standing plotline, however, includes a buyer who wants no part of a rehab project. So the brothers don’t initially mention “reno”. Instead, they take the prospective buyer to a house that has absolutely everything on the wish list. The delighted buyer is ready to sign. Glitch: the house always is priced significantly over budget.


However, the brothers explain, they just happen to have found a suitable property that could be purchased and rehabbed with everything the dream house boasted — within budget! Sold. Let the renovation begin!


The takeaway: If you expect to be turned down for a request, first pitch a more unreasonable one. Ask for three vacation days if you need to be gone one day during a busy time at work. After rejection, go back the next day and ask to take “only one” day. Likewise, if you need two people and a budget of $10,000 to complete a project, ask your supervisor for $20,000 and four people. When that’s shot down, go back with a ‘revised budget’ and ask for $10,000 and 2 people. In both scenarios, social psychologists predict you will be much more likely to get what you actually want if you do the two-pronged approach rather than if you made the real request first.


To up the compliance likelihood even more, new research suggests you include an apologetic acknowledgement “metacommunication” alongside the first request which actually acknowledges the request as being over the top. “I know, given current company constraints, that you’ll probably find this undoable, but I really need….” Then go back the next day with the more “reasonable” request, indicating you’ve considered the company’s needs in your new approach. You have, in this way, redefined “reasonable” to apply to what you wanted all along.


I’m happy to share social psychology research with you to make your workplace experience better. All I ask is that you use your new powers for good!


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2021: Jody Glynn Patrick; all rights reserved