February 03, 2009
It has become increasingly common for companies to prohibit facilitating payments on the grounds that they’re expensive, risky and corrosive of good governance more generally. This leaves employees with clear guidance at the policy level, but few strategies on the ground.
Bruce Horowitz, of Paz Horowitz in Ecuador is a Vice-Chair of the ABA’s Section of International Law Anti-Corruption Committee. He has undertaken interesting work in the strangely named field of “positive deviance”. Experts in this field seek to explain positive and unexpected exceptions to difficult situations: Why are some children healthy in areas of rampant disease and malnutrition? Why do some students stay in school in areas of high drop-out rates?
In communities where honest government officials are in the minority and routine transactions untainted by bribes the exception, Bruce describes one “positive deviant” exchange with a low level official.
* * *"Our informant carefully prepared himself to meet with a notorious bribe-demanding functionary for the first time. He scripted his approach to the exchange: (a) Stand quietly at the functionary’s little window until the functionary looked at him, (b) Smile confidently, (c) Say “good morning”, followed immediately by (d) “I am so relieved that I get to talk to you. I have heard that most of the public employees here demand bribes, but I have also heard that you never ask for a one.” (These words are exactly those used.) (e) Smile, again and describe his request.
(f) Use an expression and body language indicating that he trusts her to give him what he has requested.This worked. Our informant immediately got that to which he was entitled from this habitually extortionate government functionary. Why? What just happened?
Without getting into the anthropology and organizational psychology of the situation, we see that:
As in any good negotiation, our informant prepared in advance. The official never directly demanded the bribe, indicating that she is either risk averse or has an image of herself as a “good” person. From most of the 50 or more people who show up at her counter every day, she faces indifference, fear or contempt. When our informant arrived at the little window, however, he acknowledged her. He smiled at her, treated her with respect, placed her above the common crowd, and allowed her to feel appreciated. He used an ethical technique that relies on the common human need to feel morally good.
When most people are confronted with the choice between acting in a way that assists someone who appreciates us, or in a way that disillusions that person, we tend to try to fulfill the other person’s expectations that we are “good”.
Will this approach work ever time? No, but it will work more often if we stop thinking of the people behind the counter as grasping, extortionate, inferior human beings. If we show them friendly respect rather than indifference, -- collegiality between equals rather than a fawning subservience. If we give them the choice to rise to our expectations, then we will have significantly increased the probability of deterring an extortionate demand, and of walking away with what we came for."
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Bribery is habit-forming. Government officials fall into habits of expecting bribes and the business community falls into habits of paying them without much hesitation. Avoiding even a single extortionate demand is worth doing; it undermines both parties’ assumptions about the intractable nature of bribery and answers in a small way the cynics’ mantra that business simply can’t be conducted in some countries without bribes.