In business, the right question can often be the best answer
An unusual look at the economic and interpersonal consequences of deflecting direct questions
One of the most difficult moments in life occurs when confronting a question one wishes had never been asked. From job interviews to meetings with bosses to business negotiations, there are endless examples of questions where a fully honest response could result, at best, in an economic loss or, at worst, in the destruction of an entire relationship.
Take, for example, a recently-married female job candidate who is asked about plans to have children in the future. She could answer honestly: “I plan to have children in the next year.” She could refuse to answer: “I would rather not say.” She could lie: “I don’t plan to have children any time soon.” Researchers have examined the implications and consequences of each of these three types of responses, but a fourth option also exists —deflection, i.e., responding to the original question with yet another question that attempts to take the conversation in a different direction.
The consequences of choosing deflection in response to an unwanted question are the focus of research from T. Bradford Bitterly (Hong Kong Technical University) and Maurice E. Schweitzer (Wharton). Their research conclusions are worth considering, given that difficult questions are still very much a part of everyday life.
Their paper begins by noting that declining to answer a question directly risks two possible penalties. First, someone may incur an “interpersonal” cost, e.g., the risk of being seen as less forthright or trustworthy. Second, someone may incur an economic cost, e.g., receiving an offer of a lower salary. These risks arise from the information asymmetry that can be present in certain discussions, e.g., where one party has information that, if revealed, could benefit a counterparty or even cause them harm. The authors label these interactions strategic disclosure interactions. They note that in these situations “individuals are motivated to conceal sensitive information, but the likelihood of disclosure may be profoundly influenced by contextual factors such as competition, social pressure, financial incentives, and even the medium of communication.”
In these settings, even individuals who want to disclose all the requested information may not do so for fear that doing so may bring a heavy cost. As the authors note:
In a negotiation, for example, someone who fully discloses their private information may be exploited by their counterpart. Similarly, in a job interview, someone who truthfully responds to a sensitive question (e.g., how much they made in their last position or about drug use) may be offered a lower salary or fail to receive an offer. In settings involving sensitive information, people often feel compelled to respond when they are asked a direct question, but may suffer economic costs when they do.
The challenge for people asked an uncomfortable question is to respond in such a way that does not put them in jeopardy. Refusing to answer is not an ideal response, since research has shown that people who decline to answer direct questions are viewed as less trustworthy and less likable than individuals who disclose sensitive information. In addition, individuals who decline to answer sensitive questions often reveal information just by declining. For example, someone who responds, “I do not want to answer that question” after having been asked, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” suggests an answer that is not very hard to divine. Alternatively, note the authors, individuals may respond to a question by engaging in lying, but individuals who engage in deception risk harm to their long-term relationships should the deception be discovered. Indeed, lying and subsequently being found to be a liar is probably the worst possible outcome.
Given that lying is such a risky (and unethical) option and that refusing to answer may be almost as bad as answering, what, the authors ask, are the consequences of deflecting?
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