Why It’s So Hard to Say ‘No’

Exploring social perceptions in the workplace

Imagine that your phone has just died but you have a very important call to make. Would you be comfortable approaching a stranger and asking to use their phone? How many people do you think you’d have to ask before someone agrees?

These are the kinds of questions that fascinate Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. Bohns does research on social influence and our perceptions of the influence that we have over other people.

She’s interested in the underlying psychological mechanisms like how feelings of self-consciousness, awkwardness, and embarrassment affect our willingness to ask others to do something for us and how these dynamics play out in the workplace.

As part of eCornell’s Women in Leadership WebCast Series, Bohns joined Chris Wofford for a discussion on how to get others to say yes and why it can be so hard to say no.

Wofford: Vanessa, thanks for joining us today. What can asking a stranger to borrow their phone teach us about interactions in the workplace?

Bohns: The real question is, why is it so hard to ask people for things? Likewise, why is it so hard to say no? A lot of it has to do with the underlying psychological mechanisms like emotions that prevent us from recognizing our own influence over others and potentially prevent us from seeing when other people feel like they can’t ask us for help.

In many cases, it comes down to awkwardness. Something as simple as asking someone for their phone can be a very distressing interaction. The self-consciousness, the awkwardness, this idea that you’re imposing on someone, it can create anxiety.

There is also a gender aspect to the discomfort of asking. Studies have shown that women experience about two and a half times more anxiety when asking for things than men. We all probably think of the stereotype about men not wanting to ask for directions, but that comes from a different place than when you have to ask for something for yourself, like a raise or promotion at work, for example.

We all tend to mistake our own feelings of discomfort for other people’s feelings of discomfort. We all deal with egocentric biases, because we know what’s happening in our own head—it’s very rich with information about our own experiences, and because of that, we don’t necessarily recognize other people’s experiences.

Wofford: Can you give us an example of these biases in action?

Bohns: I’ll start with something called the spotlight effect, which is basically the idea that people are paying more attention to us than they actually are. There’s a classic study from the 1990s in which college-aged participants were given this Barry Manilow t-shirt, which was considered a pretty embarrassing thing to wear. The participants were asked to go interact with others and then come back and rate how likely it was that these other people recognized what they were wearing. Of course, they all thought everyone noticed their Manilow shirts and judged them harshly for it, when, in fact, most people didn’t even notice what they were wearing and if they did, they certainly didn’t judge them because of it. So we tend to think that everyone’s looking at us, noticing our bad hair days, noticing our bad outfits, noticing when we trip. But most of the time, people are much more interested in themselves than anything you are doing.

Wofford: So I shouldn’t worry about wearing this outfit again tomorrow?

Bohns: Exactly, no one is going to notice.

The spotlight effect is very related to another egocentric bias that’s called the illusion of transparency, which is this idea that our emotions sort of leak out of our skin and everyone can see how anxious we are when we’re giving a talk, for example. The truth is that people in the audience usually say they had no idea that the speaker was anxious. Our emotions don’t leak out to the extent that we think they do.

Another egocentric bias is the illusion of courage and this is one of my particular favorites. The illusion of courage is this idea that other people are less affected by self-consciousness, embarrassment, and awkwardness than we are ourselves. A classic study on this entailed playing the song ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James really loudly in a big auditorium full of students. The students were told that a number of them would be brought up to dance in front of the entire audience, so naturally a lot of people get nervous and worried that they’d be the ones picked. As part of the experiment, the students were asked to write down how much money they’d need to be paid in order to get up on stage and dance. They were also asked how much they thought other people would need to be paid to do the same.

On average, the students said that they would need more than $50 before they would actually consider dancing up on stage but when they judged other people, they thought that they would take less than $20 to do it. They thought that other people just wouldn’t be as embarrassed or feel as concerned about doing this as they themselves would. This is the illusion of courage.

Wofford: So when when you take all these egocentric biases together, they sort of suggest that we think that other people would judge us more harshly than they actually do?

Bohns: Exactly. We think that they’re paying attention to our mistakes, that they’re remembering them and that they’re making all sorts of judgments based on them.

So that’s why if we ask for something, we think people are going to judge us. If we say no to something, people are going to judge us. We simply don’t realize the extent to which other people also have feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness. We’re so worried about how people view us that we’re not paying attention to how other people feel in a lot of situations.

This goes beyond our personal interactions. Just recognizing the extent to which self-conscious concerns affect us and the decisions we make on a daily basis as managers, as employees, as bosses—and the extent to which our employees are making similar decisions based on self-conscious concerns—is a really important thing when it comes to organizational behavior.

Wofford: Let’s turn to another big question: why is it so hard for people to say no?

Bohns: In part, people are just mindlessly following a social norm that we say yes to people. So when someone comes up to you and asks for something, you just go along with it without really thinking. That’s part of it. Another big factor is that we don’t want to impolite. If you say no, there’s something that you could be insinuating about the other person that there’s something wrong with what they’re asking.

At the end of the day, it’s just really awkward to say no. And so it’s often just easier and more comfortable to say yes, and just go along with whatever somebody is asking you.

Wofford: Am I wrong to feel encouraged by this? I feel like people are generally good.

Bohns: I think there’s something to be said for the fact that our mindless default is to agree, to just go along with helping other people. The takeaway is that people are often much more willing to help us than we think—and that we have a certain degree of influence.

But there can be a dark side to this. There’s the phenomenon of social engineering that can be used to get people to do things that they should say no to. That can be used by nefarious people who understand this and who want, for example, to gain access to sensitive information by exploiting psychological vulnerabilities. So instead of technically hacking into someone’s computer, you call them up and say, “Hey, I know so-and-so and he said that maybe you’d be willing to give me this, and I just need your password to log on.” One of the reasons this is so effective is that people feel so awkward challenging what someone is saying to them.

The last thing I want to talk about is how this idea that we don’t recognize other people’s feelings of discomfort can affect the ways in which we can encourage them to ask us for things. When we are the ones who can actually help others, do we recognize the barriers that prevent people from seeking our help? Do we realize how awkward they might feel and can we better encourage people to actually come ask for help when they need it?

You can imagine a situation where you have an employee who’s struggling with a project but just too nervous or self-conscious to ask you, the boss, for help. You might not realize that the reason he’s not asking is because he feels awkward, not necessarily because he doesn’t have any questions related to the project.

Wofford: And that might directly affect the outcome of the project.

Bohns: Yes. On the other hand, you can imagine a more nefarious situation in which a supervisor asks a subordinate to do something that she’s uncomfortable with. She feels awkward saying no and the supervisor, because he’s not aware of this discomfort, assumes that she was fine with it. He assumes that if she didn’t want to do what he was asking, she would just say no. A lot of us make this assumption because we’re in our own egocentric world.

Wofford: You’ve shared some really interesting examples. What are some of the conclusions and takeaways you want our audience to leave with?

Bohns: One major conclusion that should be completely evident from all these studies is that self-consciousness drives much of human behavior. We usually think that embarrassment is this trivial emotion but it actually drives so much of behavior that we should take it seriously. We should be aware of the extent to which we are likely to overlook embarrassment in others and the extent to which it drives our own behavior.

So part of the takeaway is to manage the control that self-consciousness has over you. You might think that you’re the only one who is affected by embarrassment, but actually everybody is. Also, be aware of how it might affect others’ behaviors and prevent them from doing things like asking for help.

When it comes to asking for things that you actually need, the first thing is to just ask. People are much more likely to say yes than you think.

Finally, don’t worry about the way people will interpret a request. Be direct. People tend to think that they should be indirect and sort of beat around the bush, when in fact people are much less likely to respond positively to these kinds of subtle hints. They are much more likely to respond positively to a direct request.

You might think that if people are saying yes out of awkwardness or because they feel they can’t say no, that means they’re going to interpret this as being pressured into it. But actually we have actually found that, afterwards, people re-interpret why they did something in a way that makes them feel good.


Want to hear more? This interview is based on Vanessa Bohns’ live eCornell WebSeries event, Your Power of Persuasion: Getting Others To Say “Yes,” and Why It Is So Hard To Say “No.” Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Human Resources topics. 

Christopher Wofford is Digital Media Producer and host of WebSeries at eCornell.
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