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Chip Massey: The ‘secret ingredient’ to denying bribe requests is trust

I was an FBI Special Agent for more than two decades, serving part of that time as a hostage/crisis negotiator. In that role, I had precious seconds to build trust.

I met many people at their life’s lowest ebb. Some were investigation subjects who, after serving their sentences, would become valued sources. Others were fugitives whom I’d convinced to surrender. Others were co-conspirators whom I’d persuaded to turn against their syndicates.

In each instance, the deciding factor, the “secret ingredient” that brought them in, was trust. People in a raw and fearful emotional state had to believe in me and what I represented.

One of the most important jobs agents perform is gaining the cooperation of criminal insiders. In one instance I had to arrest a suspect while securing his agreement to work as an FBI source against his syndicate. Everything I did during his arrest, booking, and interview was a chance for him to gauge what kind of person I was.

He saw how I interacted with his family during the crisis; how I spoke to him when I explained what he would experience during his booking and court appearance. As the day unfolded, I remained with him throughout. He realized I was true to my word. He learned to trust me.     

Fear is an overwhelming factor in any criminal activity, and bribery is no exception. Fear of failure. Fear of the other side’s reaction to the ask. Fear of getting caught. When fear dominates, trust is the bridge that brings people to a more reasonable mindset.

So how do you shut down a bribe request without losing the deal?

First, you decline the request. This accomplishes two things. One, you’ve moved the possibility of bribery off the table; and two, you’ve positioned yourself as a person of integrity. People with integrity are people we trust.

You’re one step closer toward building trust. But the clock is ticking, and the person who asked for the bribe is starting to pull away. What now? You offer a better, more profitable way forward. 

Tell your prospect that you won’t walk away from them because of a hiccup in cash flow or a change in delivery agreements to keep pace with uneven demand. Trust becomes the foundation for the next deal, and the longer the relationship lasts, the greater the opportunity. This is a valid trajectory for growth.

Paying the bribe only gets you this one deal. What happens next time if the bribe request is even higher? If you balk, a person with deeper pockets will get the contract.

But wait, you had an “understanding,” right? Yes, but your “understanding” was a fraudulent one. Your relationship is built on a corrupt foundation, which sours all the following transactions.

Criminal transactions require willingness from both parties. By consenting to the bribe, you’re laying the groundwork for a relationship built on fear and mistrust — a relationship that’s ultimately doomed.

When you position yourself as trustworthy, credible, and concerned about your prospect, you can neutralize the bribe request by demonstrating a way forward to even greater, longer-lasting business opportunities. You’ll possess yet another tool for defeating fear and building more profitable relationships.


Chip Massey, pictured above, is CEO of Plowshare Communications, a consulting firm that advises businesses on crisis leadership and building trust-based relationships using hostage negotiation strategies. For more than two decades, he served as an FBI Special Agent and hostage negotiator. His work ranged from post 9/11 counterterrorism investigations to high-profile espionage, and public corruption cases. As a hostage negotiator, he worked extensively in crisis situations, including international kidnappings and fugitive apprehensions.

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