52. Whitewash The Fence

I’m going to make you a deal.  A great deal!  I have this job that needs to be done.  It’s a rather tedious job, but it needs to be done regardless of the tedium.  This job is of special importance that only a few qualified individuals can manage and I’m not sure that you are one of those people with the right talent and temperament for this job.  Maybe you have what it takes.  I’m a little busy right now recording this podcast. So, how would you like to do this job for me?  Wait!  One more thing.  I would like you to give me something for this opportunity to shine.  Something modest will be okay.  But, some form of payment is required.  Sounds like a great deal doesn’t it?  Most of the constant listeners in the audience are probably shaking their heads at the absurd terms of this deal.  You’d be surprised at how many people take this deal every day.


Welcome to Swimming in the Flood; a podcast where we develop the resilient leader’s mindset by navigating difficult currents in business.  My name is Trent Theroux.


According to Wikipedia,  Reverse psychology is a technique involving the assertion of a belief or behavior that is opposite to the one desired, with the expectation that this approach will encourage the subject of the persuasion to do what actually is desired.

Reverse psychology as a term probably isn’t foreign to us.  What may be novel is to consider how developing resilient leaders can use reverse psychology to their advantage in a highly ethical way.  Here are more two examples.

First, loss aversion.  Loss aversion is a psychological mindset where people are more likely to experience satisfaction from saving money than from earning it.  How many times can you think of hearing somebody saving money through couponing?  They have reality shows about this.  My wife would come home with a new sweater and tell me that it was tagged at $140.  There was a special 30% off for in-store purchase (an hour away from where we lived…just sayin’), a 25% coupon for purchasing between the hours of 7:00pm and 8:00pm.  10% discount for opening a credit card.  And she would tell me with great pride that she bought a $140 sweater for $11.  It took eight hours of her life to make this purchase, but she was elated to save nearly 90%.

Research has shown that people find greater pleasure in saving $20 than finding a $20 bill on the street.  People are more motivated to save money than they are to earn it.  Use this to your advantage to explain that people might be missing out on great value if they happen to choose a lower priced competitor.

Here’s the second method of reverse psychology.  Give people a limited time offer.  We’ve heard these a million times on infomercials. You can get a great set of steak knives, but if you call in the next 20 minutes we will add a second set of steak knives for free.  Or, something like that.  This may sound cheesy to you, but there’s a reason it’s worked for as long as it has.

I know a speaker whose first comment to a potential client is that she needs to review her calendar to determine her availability for an event.  Quite often, she might say that she has someone penciled in, but the date has not been confirmed with a deposit.  What a great limited availability reverse psychology use.  The potential client has their event date locked.  The speaker they are considering may have the date open, but only if they act in a short period of time.

People can argue that these are tricks.  Sure.  All salesmanship has some trick to it.  Trick may not be the right word.  Developing Resilient Leaders can use the term steering.  We’re steering people to make the decisions that we want them to make.

I am now going to give you my unscientific, non-peer reviewed, resilient leader theory on reverse psychology.  Are you ready?  Got your pencils out?  Here’s it is.  Whitewash The Fence.  You heard it.  Whitewash The Fence.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Mark Twain’s classic about a young, mischievous, prankster who matures with life’s lessons.  In Chapter 2, Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly punishes him for perpetrating a prank against his cousin.  Polly assigns him the task of whitewashing the fence.  In more common terms, we might say give the fence a fresh coat of white paint.  Polly made Tom do this on Saturday purposefully so that he would miss a day of play with his friends.

Tom was angry, as most of us would be for losing a play day during the school year and began the punishment.  A short while later Ben Rogers came around and started to tease Tom about having to work on a Saturday.  Tom cleverly replied, “what work?” and proceeded to paint the fence with intense focus.  Ben didn’t understand why Tom wasn’t upset about this punishment.  Tom said, “I don’t see why I would be, you don’t get to do this every day.”  Before long, Ben asked Tom if he could paint a little.  Tom continued the act, “Only one in a thousand boys can do this.  Aunt Polly said that this is so important that only Tom Sawyer can do it.”  Now, that might have been stretching what Aunt Polly actually said, but only a minute later Ben offered Tom his apple in exchange for the opportunity to try painting.

And if you know the story you’ll know that Ben convinced other boys to try their skill at painting for a small fee to Tom.  It’s a brilliant use of reverse psychology applied by a young master.

Twain wrote, “To make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain.”

This got me to thinking are there companies that do the same to us?  Are their companies that we do the work for and pay for the privilege?  The first person I thought of was Daniel LaRussa.  This sixteen-year-old washed and waxed Mr. Miyagi’s cars, painted the house, sanded the floor AND painted the fence in return for a couple of karate moves.  However, this isn’t a business.  Plus, I’ve got a lot to say about Mr. Miyagi so I’ll save that for another episode.

Perhaps Habitat for Humanity.  These tremendous volunteers spend weeks of their lives in manual labor building homes for the homeless.  Beyond their time they also give their money, on in-kind through building materials.  While they are painting fences this doesn’t seem to fit the psychology mold.

The company I thought of was Wikipedia.  In 2001, Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia, a website where thousands of community members contribute, edit and monitor content on just about anything.  And for building the 5th most trafficked website in the world, the contributors are paid nothing. They perform hundreds of thousands of hours of work for no compensation.  This appears to be one of the best whitewash the fence activities in the world.  But it also reminded me of another Mark Twain quote.  “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do.  Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

The Wikipedia contributors aren’t working on the website.  They’re playing.  They enjoy sharing their plethora of knowledge on various subjects.  They get gratification from seeing other contributors expound on their postings.

Wouldn’t that be nice to see in our office environments?  Maybe if we can make our whitewashing the fence more palatable then it won’t seem like a chore.  Tom Sawyer had the right plan, but the wrong motivation.  Creating an environment where everyone WANTS to whitewash the fence may be the best environment for all companies.

Any story about Tom Sawyer would be incomplete without a few words from my good friend Geddy Lee.

I could rock out to that all night.

Folks, thank you for listening to Swimming in the Flood.  Resilient leaders face challenging currents and it is tough navigating, but with one tack or another we can get there together.

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Thanks for taking the time to listen.  See ya