Do yourself a favour by doing favours for others

Careers  Leadership
04 February, 2019

The art of helping people in meaningful ways – without burning out.

Some people think of favours in purely transactional terms: “Why should I go out of my way for someone else, when it’s not part of my job and I’m not getting anything in return?”. What they don’t realise is that the simple act of doing something for someone else is tremendously beneficial.

So, this week, my message focuses on how doing favours for other people boosts your happiness and success. How can you be a thoughtful yet efficient favour-giver?

When you do someone a favour, three things happen:

  1. You feel good that you’re able to help the person
  2. The person becomes much more likely to help you and others at some point in the future
  3. You increase your professional influence

First, using part of your time, resources or knowledge for someone else’s sake actually makes you happier. You may have already experienced this feeling in other situations, be it helping out your elderly neighbours or volunteering your time for a social cause. Generous, selfless people tend to be happier and more fulfilled.

Then, there’s the reciprocity effect. If you recommend a colleague for a new project, they’ll be more likely to do the same for you and for others.

If you’re happy to make introductions between your contacts, they’ll probably return the favour – often spontaneously and on a larger scale. The more you give, the more you get back.

While reciprocal favours are a wonderful bonus, they shouldn’t the reason for helping people. You derive the maximum internal satisfaction and external influence when you give without expecting anything in return – no strings (spoken or unspoken) attached! If you’re only doing someone a good turn so they’ll be indebted to you, it’s likely to backfire. In The Benefits of Doing Favours for Others, the author elaborates:

If you do something for another person with the expectation of getting something back in return, you don’t even have to say anything, most people will pick up on the vibe and feel uncomfortable about what you’ve done. This may actually hurt your relationship with the person instead of helping it, and it will almost certainly lower your odds of ever receiving a gift back from someone else.

Here are some suggestions to consider as you try being more generous with favours:

1. Build connect with colleagues

Let’s say there’s a talented colleague who you’re eager to know better and team up with for future projects. A simple way of kick-starting a positive equation is to lend a hand with what they’re working on right now. Ask if there’s anything on their to-do list that you can help with, or send them a resource you know will be valuable. Based on the freshly-created goodwill, you can start to build a strong working relationship.

If you’re on the lookout for mentorship, then doing your potential mentor the right favour at the right time is an effective way to catch their attention. It shows that you’ve done your homework, and that you’re willing to go the extra mile when it counts.

You might think that only powerful people are in a position to give out favours – but that’s not quite true. For example, a tech-savvy newcomer could assist a senior leader in solving an online problem, while a voracious reader could rapidly identify key insights in a dense document. Get creative about the ways in which you can help out people who may be above you in the professional hierarchy.

2. Filter favour-seekers

Aim to give generously, without expecting anything in return. However, as a leader coping with the inevitable time crunch, you may need to choose who to help. With the rise of online networking, it’s no longer unusual to receive tens of requests each week via LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. Favours are often solicited by people you hardly know – and sometimes by complete strangers. Helping each and every one of them would take up a considerable amount of your time, which you probably can’t spare.

In such a situation, prioritise the people who genuinely want and will appreciate your help. In his Harvard Business Review article, When Someone Asks You for a Favor, Daniel Gulati recommends creating filters to narrow down the pool:

When someone asks to be introduced to a person in your network…ask the requester for a one-paragraph summary of his request, so that you can easily forward it to the person he wishes to meet…. Asking the requester for more context behind the introduction will eliminate the 30% of tire-kickers just looking to meet with folks, leaving the 70% who actually want to meet your contact for a specific reason.

Similarly, when a person wants feedback on a new idea or project, Gulati suggests asking them to explain what exactly they’d like from you. For meeting requests, ask for pre-reads for the discussion. These steps will help weed out those who aren’t really committed. As he explains:

By qualifying those who ask for favors, you’ve designed a system that is both effective and efficient: You’re quickly identifying those who most want your help, you’re not ignoring or denying anyone, and importantly, you’re preserving your own valuable time.

3. Try the “five-minute favour”

In an interview with Good Morning America, Adam Grant, professor at Wharton Business School and author of Give and Take, explains that givers tend to be extremely successful at work:

When you have a choice about who to work with, you ask for them. They’re the people that you trust to be your subordinate or your boss. They just end up with better reputations – and better relationships as well.

To increase your influence without burning out, Professor Grant recommends the “five-minute favour” – an idea popularised by Adam Rifkin, a tech entrepreneur who was listed among the World’s Most Successful Networkers by Fortune a few years ago. Just spend five minutes every day making introductions, sending thank-you notes, or doing anything else you consider to be a favour. This is a great way of regularly helping people within your network, without taking up too much of your time.

To encourage the spirit of doing (and asking for!) favours among your team members, try a favour-swap session – adapted from an activity that Grant conducts in the classroom. Give each person a large sheet of paper and ask them to write down a task on which they’d like some extra assistance from their colleagues. Pin up everyone’s sheets along the walls, then ask the team to walk around and sign up for tasks they’d like to help out with. After signups, facilitate conversations between favour-seekers and favour-givers to help them move forward in a concrete way. This is a great way of kick-starting a culture of generosity at the workplace.

4. Consider redefining “favours”

Recent research from the UCL School of Management found that corporate leaders need to go beyond quick conversations and superficial assistance at work. They must provide their teams with “deep help” – which could extend over hours or even days. This is an invaluable component for success in the increasingly complex, knowledge-centric work we do.

In the Marginalia piece, The rise of ‘deep help’ – why today’s leaders must go beyond shallow advice and favours, Professor Colin Fisher (who led the study) explains:

Addressing the most important problems often requires more than a quick conversation.

However, many leaders still fear that deep involvement equates to micromanagement. Our findings suggest that leaders can be most effective in offering deep help if they are careful in the ways they talk about the time they spend with those they are helping, and send clear signals that they aren’t there to take over the work or to evaluate subordinates.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.



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