Anticipating Irrationality: Managing your Client’s Bad Behavior

As public relations professionals, we are paid to help our clients make the best possible decisions when it comes to communicating their ideas. But very often, without meaning to, they can get in their own way.  When do we see this?  When they:

  • Procrastinate when it comes time to agree on messaging
  • Pick the non-strategic program
  • Refuse to do a pivotal interview
  • Agree in theory to strong ideas and then balk at implementation

Duke University professor Dan Ariely conducts simple experiments that show human beings are hard-wired for irrationality, and these experiments shed some light on why we act the way we do. A recent Forbes article chronicled his latest: an online loan game where volunteers choose to pay off loans of various sizes and interest rates. Nearly all the players are constantly tempted to pay off low-interest small loans first, even when leaving them open would leave them richer in the long run.

Sound familiar? How many times have you crossed small projects off your to do-list while letting the really big one—the one that causes you the most stress when it’s unfinished—languish for days? The reason, according to Ariely, is our innate desire to feel like we are making some sort of progress, and that satisfaction can overpower our desire to do what we know is best.

It’s easy to feel discouraged when clients resist our advice. But we’d do well to remember Ariely’s experiment with the loan game: even people with the best intentions don’t always make the right decisions, often because they’re compelled to fulfill an underlying behavioral need that they may not even recognize. It’s our job to a) learn how to understand and recognize these underlying behaviors, b) anticipate them, and c) adapt to them so we can fulfill these needs while also helping our clients understand the best way forward.

A number of books we like have been written on this topic – there’s Ariely’s own The Upside of Irrationality, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz, Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow, and Complications by Atul Gawande.  In other words, no shortage of accessible and insightful information on why we act in ways that are not in our own best interests.

No one can force another person to behave in a totally rational, linear way; and even if we could, we’d all be pretty boring and predictable.  But you can make it part of your job to learn more about the unconscious needs that drive people’s (and even your own) desire to sometimes make irrational decisions, and in doing so, learn how to respond more nimbly to them. You might even find ways to guide people into becoming better decision-makers.  Here are some tacks we’ve taken:

  • Break a large task into smaller, more easily digestible pieces
  • Gently remind the client of the larger, end goal
  • Help him or her connect the dots between the immediate task and another priority on his or her agenda
  • Create an artificial deadline – an article, a speech, a staff meeting – that the needed work needs doing by

When all else fails, remember that they are human, and be forgiving and as understanding as possible.  Often we push our clients out of their comfort zone, which can cause them to – consciously or not – put what we’re asking into the “too hard, don’t want to do this” pile on their desks.

How do you respond when a client or colleague makes a decision that seems completely off? Can you spot any behavioral patterns that might help you adjust your feedback to them? Do you think their decision was tied to an unconscious need that has been left unfulfilled?

To reach Siobhan:

Phone: 212.840.1661
Twitter: @shiv245
LinkedIn: Siobhan Ford