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Three Magic Phrases for Encouraging Collaboration

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October 26, 2021 | Barbara Baksa

Three Magic Phrases for Encouraging Collaboration

Don’t you sometimes wish you could just wave a magic wand to get people to do what you want? I don’t have any magic spells to offer you, but I did learn some helpful magic phrases to encourage collaboration from the NASPP Conference keynote address “10 Things You Can Do Today to Wow Tomorrow,” presented by Frances Cole Jones. Here are just three of her suggestions.


One tactic Frances suggests using is to include a “because” in any request. She notes that social psychologist Ellen Langer found that explaining why you are making a request increases the possibility of cooperation from 60% to 94%!

Frances gives the example of someone trying to cut in line. If they ask to cut in line without giving a reason, you are likely to refuse. But if they give a reason, such as that they are late to pick up their kids, you might still be annoyed but you are much more likely to accommodate them.

In the context of stock plan administration, think about the many requests you make of both your internal colleagues and the various service providers you work with. How much would it help to include a “because” with those requests?

For example, let’s say you need to convince your payroll department to do a special payroll run to deposit the tax withholding due for every RSU vesting event. If you don’t explain why the special payroll run is necessary, they are likely to balk at it for reasons of their own (it’s a hassle, special payroll runs are costly, etc.). 

But imagine if you say “My request is that we do a special payroll run after each RSU vesting event because I attended the session ‘Avoiding Penalties on the IRS $100,000 Next-Day Deposit Rule’ at the NASPP Conference and learned that the IRS is actively auditing compliance with the next-day deposit rule and, if we fail to deposit the taxes on time, we could face penalties of up to $____________ and there could be state penalties as well.” It’s likely to be a lot harder for payroll to dismiss your request without at least considering it.

Find the Egg

I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of using a box cake mix. Have you wondered why you have to add an egg? Frances explains that it’s not because the egg is critical; powdered eggs could easily be incorporated into the mix and all you’d have to do is add water. But Duncan Hines found that people weren’t invested in the success of the cake if all they added was water; they didn’t feel like they were baking.

This translates to collaborating with others at work. It is important for everyone to feel like they have something meaningful to add so that they are invested in the process. As Frances explains, finding where your wants intersect with your listener’s needs and allowing them to contribute to the project makes them more likely to take ownership of the project.

Imagine that, after attending the NASPP Conference session “Future Proof Your Equity Strategies,” you’ve realized that your company needs a more well-defined process by which managers can exercise discretion over equity awards issued to their direct reports. You want to work with HR to develop and implement a process.

You can find common ground by noting that HR wants to avoid potential lawsuits, you want to make sure the company uses its limited share reserve wisely, and you both want to ensure that employees are treated fairly. Moreover, HR has some expertise in setting appropriate compensation and evaluating pay for fairness; allowing them to contribute that expertise to the project is likely to help get HR on board with it and will result in a better outcome.

X is Not a Choice

Here’s a scenario you are probably familiar with: Someone (an executive, a plan participant) makes a request that you know is, at best, highly problematic, and, at worst, illegal or impossible. You might be tempted to respond with something like “I/we/you can’t do that,” but Frances suggests depersonalizing your response by using the phrase “X is not a choice” (where X is the request).

Because your tone is as important (or more important) than what you say, Frances encourages you to channel the enthusiasm of a NY restaurant hostess telling diners their table won’t be ready for half an hour when you do this. And she suggests moving quickly on to choices Y and Z (i.e., “what we can do instead is Y or Z—which do you prefer?”).

I sometimes like to reverse the order and start with Y and Z. That way my response starts on a positive note. For example, if someone were to ask me if they can issue options with a grant date two weeks prior to the date the board will approve the grants, I might say something like “Well, you can use a value two weeks prior to the approval date to determine the number of shares to grant and you can measure vesting from a date two weeks prior to the approval date. It isn’t permissible, however, to have a grant date that occurs prior to the date the option is approved because [see what I did here] for accounting and tax purposes, the grant date can’t occur until the grant is approved.”

More Magic Phrases

Frances offers a wealth of great phrases for sticky situations. I think my personal favorite is “It sounds like you have an opinion about that,” for when someone says something you don’t agree with and you need a moment to respond. I have some family members I may need to use that phrase with (although it does seem like it might involve risk that the person will feel invited to share more of their opinion—clearly it will have to be used judiciously).

The recording of Frances’ keynote is available now; check it out today.

- Barbara

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