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Archive for May, 2011

Selfish meanies in your office

Monday, May 30, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

There are likely selfish people who are in your office and others who are just plain mean. This may not come as a surprise to you. And sometimes, they are the same people/person. That may not shock you either. We’ve written about civility and incivility before here, but this time we have brand new research to show us how it is expressed now.


A firm pays good money for research by outside organizations. And they depend on “knowledge sharing” for the distribution of that knowledge. Except it doesn’t work. New research show that due to basic distrust and a poor knowledge-sharing climate in companies, employees hide what they know from each other: through being evasive; “rationalized hiding” (saying the report is confidential); or simply by playing dumb. The researchers recommend several strategies for increasing willingness to share knowledge freely: less email communication and more direct, face-to-face communication; showcasing examples of trustworthiness within the company; and avoiding what the researchers call “betrayal incentives” (where you are rewarded for stealing clients from coworkers, for example).

In other words, be more transparent, actually value honesty and direct communication, give face-time, and encourage collegiality.


Most of us who have worked for more than 5 years or so have run into ‘meanies’ (aka bullies). Some of them are bullies in email or on blogs and others are just plain nasty in person as well as in writing. And the harm they can do to your reputation (in writing) and your emotional wellness (in person) can be extreme. It’s increasingly important to know who is a bully and how they bully in order to protect yourself from their venom.

  • It turns out that the more politically astute a person is, the less need they have to bully because they already know how to get what you want through interpersonal negotiations.
  • Plus, if they are politically astute, they realize there is no long-term benefit to abusing coworkers.
  • And, it’s probably no surprise that if you tend to view the world through a more negative frame and are often distressed, upset, afraid or jittery—you are more likely to be abusive to your coworkers.

So, what do you do if your organization or firm has a problem with abusive behaviors between coworkers? The researchers recommend you consider assessing negativity and political skill during hiring and offer manager training on conflict resolution to prevent escalation of conflict to abuse.

We think that makes sense and that a workplace that experiences “knowledge hiding” is also likely to have a fair amount of bullying and nastiness between colleagues. In a simple way, ‘knowledge hiding’ is a way to hoard power, as are other forms of selfishness, and bullying is a way of stripping power from others.  We wrote an article in The Jury Expert about how to manage and mentor Millennials. In truth, those recommendations are truly just plain good management for all of us.  There are some Millennial-specific instructions but all of us want to be treated with respect, listened to, and given the opportunity for interesting work.

Law firms are hired to deal with conflict between parties. Learning to deal with those conflicts in-house will result in longer tenure, increased productivity, and good will toward each other that will come back to increase your bottom line. Win- win.

Connelly, C., Zweig, D., Webster, J., & Trougakos, J (2011). Knowledge hiding in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior : 10.1002/job.737

Harris KJ, Harvey P, & Booth SL (2010). Who abuses their coworkers? An examination of personality and situational variables. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150 (6), 608-27 PMID: 21166327



We know from long experience that angry jurors award more damages in civil cases. And we assume that angry jurors in criminal cases are more punitive. And sometimes assuming pays off.

But it’s more interesting than just “make ‘em angry” if you’re a prosecutor. Researchers focused on anger and how it relates to judgments of criminal intent, causal control, and punishment. What they found will make intuitive sense.

Researchers designed a somewhat ambiguous white-collar crime scenario where a man was accused of embezzlement after he did not return a large sum of money to the owner. The man said he had simply ‘forgotten’ to return the money and that he had no intention of keeping it.

For Phase 1 of the experiment, participants were assigned to three conditions: angry, sad or neutral. These mood states were elicited by having the participants read a sad story, a story where the protagonist was treated extremely unfairly, and a story producing no real emotional response.

Researchers “checked” the conditions after all experimentation was over by asking the participants to complete a questionnaire about how they ‘felt’ following the first vignette.

All participants ‘felt’ the desired emotional response. That is, those in the ‘angry condition’ were angry; those in the ‘sad condition’ were sad and those in the ‘neutral condition’ were emotionally neutral.

The goal was to see if the mood elicited in the very first study would have impact on how participants reacted to the actual experimental conditions in Phase 2. But, the researchers waited until after Phase 2 was over to assess participant’s sense of their mood following the initial experiment.

So, going back to our post. Participants were set up for three different mood states (angry, sad, neutral) in Phase 1 of the experiment and then, in Phase 2 they were given information about the embezzlement story (where the man did not return a large sum of money to the owner). And here’s what happened.

Angry participants were more likely to see malevolence of intent. The researchers describe an “intuitive prosecutor” mindset that evolves when anger is present that colors judgment as to responsibility of the defendant. And therefore, the angry participants were more punitive.

The results are pretty easy to use as you consider your own cases in the sentencing phase.

If you are defense, you want to emphasize the ‘sad’ nature of the case. Frame mitigating events into ‘sad’ ones that happened for your client.  If complicity is unavoidable, emphasize the situational aspects that contributed (perhaps even mandated) the accused behavior. In essence, you want to present your client as a victim of circumstances who takes responsibility for what he has done but perhaps doesn’t understand exactly how it happened. [Obviously, your case presentation will need to contain this thread throughout or you will make jurors mad, not sad.]

If you are prosecution, you want to activate that “intuitive prosecutor” mindset. Present the defendant as an angry and violent person who took action to reach a planned goal. The victim was an innocent whose life was forever changed by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was not a random event. It was planned and executed with malevolent intent but the perpetrator is here today and deserves to be punished.

Ask, K., & Pina, A. (2011). On being angry and punitive: How anger alters perception of criminal intent. Social Psychological and Personality Science

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Ah, those wily telemarketers.  You simply cannot let your guard down for a minute—if you do, researchers come up with a new way to make you talk to them. You may think there is a typo in our post title and that this should say “foot in the door” technique. It isn’t a mistake. This post is about an update to an old way of making you talk to a telemarketer.

Essentially, you open the door to the caller’s presence in your life by answering an innocuous question like “Do you have a few minutes for a brief phone call?” in the affirmative. Once you have done that, all is lost—or at least, you are more likely to stay on the phone for the questionnaire completion. Here is an explanation of what researchers updating the ‘foot in the mouth’ paradigm did from the abstract [emphasis added] of their article.

A study by Howard (1990) proposed a compliance technique built on a social routine. We tested a technique based on an alternative routine. Our hypothesis was that asking people about their availability before making a request would result in increased compliance. A group of 1,791 participants were asked to answer a questionnaire by phone for a consumer survey. The results showed that compliance rates were higher when the requester inquired about respondents’ availability and waited for a response than when he pursued his set speech without waiting and inquiring about respondents’ availability. The results are discussed based on 2 complementary consistency mechanisms (Aune & Basil, 1994; Tedeschi, Schlenker, & Bonoma, 1971).

So the key is in the questioner waiting for your answer. If they wait and therefore seem to care about your time, you are more willing to give it to them. In the current research, those answering the phone were met with the following script:

“Hello, I’m a student at the technical college in Vannes, I hope I’m not disturbing you, am I?”

The caller would then wait for the answer and continue:

You probably know the regional daily paper at least by name. For our studies, we are carrying out a survey on this paper. Would you have a few minutes to answer by phone? There are only yes-or-no questions, so it should go very fast.

In the second condition, the caller would not wait for the answer to the question and simply launch into the script. In the third (control) condition, the caller would not ask the question at all and just begin reading the script.

  • What they found was that if you say, “Yes, you are disturbing me”—you were pretty unlikely to answer the questions. This is likely not a shock. But—even twenty years later with incivility everywhere, the researchers found that if they ask if they are disturbing you and wait for your response, you are much more likely to take part in a consumer survey by telephone.
  • The key is in asking questions (“how are you feeling” or “I’m not disturbing you, am I?”) often asked by friends rather than strangers. The dialogue mode encourages you to respond to a stranger as though they were your friend. The belief is that you respond automatically and without thinking—thus putting your foot in your mouth—metaphorically speaking. The research shows that people who give favorable or more neutral responses are more willing to participate in follow-up questions than those who give negative responses.

What this means (besides that we should all screen incoming calls) is intriguing.

  • You don’t want to use this strategy to garner cooperation from witnesses in court.  But, it’s still possible the witness will want to show a good face to the jury and your question may result in a subtle directive to the less sophisticated witness to interact with you as a friend.
  • You lose nothing, however, by trying out variations of this question in deposition. Like “How are you today?” and waiting for them to respond. It’s possible, you will get more compliance in response to your questions. You can think of it as another way of establishing rapport with the witness.
  • Forms of the question that might be useful in court are:
    • “Do you think it would be useful for the jury to know why…?”
      • “If you were confronted with these facts, do you think you’d wonder…?”
      • “Would you mind explaining to the jury…?”

    Photo credit

    Meineri, S., & Guegen, N. (2011). “I hope I’m not disturbing you, am I?” Another operationalization of the foot-in-the-mouth paradigm. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41 (4), 965-975


    Conspiracy theorists have been with us for perhaps, forever. Most recently we’ve been reading about birthers and deathers. But the idea of conspiracy theories goes beyond fringe elements. According to a recent issue of Rasmussen Reports, 53% of us believe elections are rigged to help incumbents in Congress. Sometimes, those espousing conspiracy theories are actually harmed when they jump from one conspiracy to the next [like Donald Trump, who has decided to serve mankind by not running for President] but often the new story and questions inherent in that story gain traction, because the implications are so salacious. And sometimes conspiracy theories appear to be true. The “possibilities” seduce and entice our imaginations.

    We see it often in pre-trial research when there are holes in the case story and jurors fill in the holes with suspicions and ideas of conspiracy.

    “I think there are things we don’t know about this story.”

    “Someone is paying her off.”

    “There is something between those two. You can just tell by looking at them.”

    One of the questions we discuss with clients is “How will the jury fill in the missing information?  To what conclusion does their intuition lead them?” Just a hint of suspicion in the absence of facts and the discussion can turn very ugly.  But you learn about a land mine you never imagined. Often, the circumstances leading to a conspiracy theory are incompetence (the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing) or simple coincidence. But as has been said many times before, it’s impossible to disprove a conspiracy theory. And you don’t want jurors who support your case to try and advocate against a conspiracy theory in the deliberation room.

    So pay attention to even the most far-fetched theories that come up in pre-trial research.

    “I think the doctor and nurse had an affair and it ended badly.”

    “I think they did steal the idea from [the inventor] and they are paying off their researcher to take the fall for it so they can blame him and not the whole company.”

    “I have a feeling something strange is going on here and we need to question everything they told us. I think they are lying and I am not sure why.”

    Knowledge of these crazy theories gives you a chance to head off wild speculation that may otherwise gain traction in the jury room. The more tightly constructed the case story, the fewer rabbit trails jurors follow.


    Sullivan D, Landau MJ, & Rothschild ZK (2010). An existential function of enemyship: evidence that people attribute influence to personal and political enemies to compensate for threats to control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (3), 434-49 PMID: 20175623

    Image Credit

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    A recent infographic created by the folks at is a terrific example of the persuasiveness of visual evidence. We are fans of visual evidence and have written about the appeal several times. Your graphic doesn’t have to be starchy and technical and, in fact, it’s better if it isn’t.

    The complete graphic “Sitting is Killing You” is cartoonish and memorable. It draws you in and informs and entertains you so that you remember the gist of the message. The tone is light and amusing. The message is about life and death. Your personal death.  And then comes the coup de grace.

    You reach the end of the infographic and are offered the sources— Government offices. Major newspapers and journals. Medical journals. Respectable and staid entities that “must be” credible.

    It’s a bit like that old trick of attorneys who walk in with a thick notebook or several paper boxes that are obviously heavy. They plunk them down on the table and then refer to them as “all the studies that support this position”. They do not name all of them. Just a few. But the weight of the boxes (and the presumed evidence) often hits the mark with at least some jurors.

    So whether it’s the weight of the evidence or the weight you accrue as you sit on your butt and shorten your life—this cute and memorable infographic has lessons for us:

    1. Make your visual evidence non-threatening.
      1. What is less threatening than a cartoonish approach? And you can obviously use this for life and death issues. But you can also use it [albeit a bit more carefully] for dry and confusing high-tech issues.
    2. Carefully give credible references for your visual evidence.
      1. Your visual evidence will certainly be vetted by opposing counsel and the judge. The reason for the inclusion of references has to do with the jurors. You want the friendly graphic appearance to help jurors believe they can grasp even complex information. You want the source information so jurors know they can trust the information as credible.

    It’s like being a good host. You serve up interesting and engaging information and show it to be credible for the layperson by invoking all the ‘experts’ in your reference list.

    Not too many. (You want them to read it. You want it to have impact but not overload their attention.)

    Not too few. (You want it to seem like there is much to support your position.)

    Jurors (and likely your client) will appreciate it.

    Joffe, H. (2008). The Power of Visual Material: Persuasion, Emotion and Identification Diogenes, 55 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0392192107087919