Solution Saturday: Stumped by a Question
An audience member stumped me with a question. I don’t like saying, “I don’t know,” in front of a thousand people, but last Tuesday in Louisville, KY, I did. He questioned something I said.
I encourage leaders to receive help, during my “Finding Fire” presentation. Bonnie St. John calls it being helpable.
Those who receive the most help go the furthest.
Rejecting help creates a leadership lid. For example, growing organizations always outgrow the talent and energy of their current leadership teams.
An audience member stood up and asked, how does one overcome feeling obligated after receiving help? If leaders let people help them, how do they not obligate themselves to return favors.
Receiving help takes you further than rejecting it. But, the sense of obligation you feel after receiving help may prevent you from receiving help in the first place.
The rule of reciprocity says it’s offensive to let someone help you without being prepared to return the favor. “I’ve done you a favor. Now you do me a favor.”
In some cultures the rule of reciprocity is sacred. Helping is a tool to generate obligations. Receiving help becomes a ball-n-chain.
After some thought, I have a response.
4 ways to escape reciprocity:
#1. Embrace meritocracy:
Reject the idea that receiving help obligates you to give someone a favor they haven’t earned.
On the other hand, the rule of reciprocity applies when it suggests that those who give the most value earn the best opportunities.
Reciprocity as merit is healthy and expected.
#2. Reject personal favors:
Servant leaders receive help in order to expand their ability to serve others. Help is not a personal favor. Helping you is helping your organization. Reject personal favors.
Helping a servant leader is helping those they serve.
#3. Helping you is helping themselves:
Those who help you are helping themselves. They:
- Develop their skills.
- Build relationships.
- Increase their worth by adding value.
- Make meaningful contribution.
Your obligation is to give opportunities to those who deliver value; not favors to incompetence.
#4. Express gratitude:
Gratitude, recognition, and honor answer the rule of reciprocity in leadership. Privately express gratitude and publicly acknowledge those who help you.
Merit governs promotion and opportunity in ethical organizations.
Teams and reciprocity:
Teams function on the principle of reciprocity. You help others – others help you. Don’t reject the rule of reciprocity, embrace it.
You shouldn’t be on a team if you aren’t giving and receiving help.
Receiving help from a servant leader’s perspective:
- Develops others.
- Maximizes talent.
- Expands organizational capacity.
- Encourages ownership and engagement in others.
- Reflects a passion for excellence.
- Tells others they matter.
- Humbles you.
- Creates opportunities for you to celebrate others.
- Strengthens relationships.
- Frees you to maximize your strengths.
How might you answer the reciprocity question from the audience?
*I relax my 300 word limit on Solution Saturdays.
Good post. Glad you got stumped. You have nailed it. “Helping the organization” is not considered a favor and those who always seek something in return for their contributions big or small are not usually the most productive nor dedicated. They are usually in it for themselves and their work usually reflects it. We expect our team members to contribute – and the “rewards” or returns are dependent upon the value of the contribution and how the leader decides to best acknowledge that contribution as you’ve covered in previous posts. You suggest to avoid personal favors – but there could be a time and place for it depending on the workplace environment you have created and the positive influence it could bring to that individual and the team. Nice work!
For the people that have helped me to grow, solve a problem, or introduced me to a new resource, it’s a prompt for me to make sure I’m doing the same for others, as they need it. I see this as more of a “pay it forward” approach. Just helping those that help you can narrow your world and cut you off from growing.
Dan- great post and subject.
My father always told me “reciprocity is a two way street”. I understand it and appreciate it but you can not take it too literal.
I tend to look at it more like Karma. If someone helps me I don’t have to help them in kind but rather I can and should help someone else. In the end it should all balance out.
Brad James, author The Business Zoo
This reciprocity rule is described as a one to one process. If I do something for you, you have to do something for me. One day, you’re the one who gives, the other you’ll be the one who receives.
What if we consider, for a leader, one to one to the system process ?
What if a leader say thank you saying this was a help and I will return it on a larger scale, maybe not directly to you, but at the end the support that someone else will get from the help you’ve give me will benefit you.
I strongly believe the role of a leader is to ask/welcome the help and then be clear on the fact he will reinvest the benefit on a larger scale.
What about this idea ?
In any case, thank you very much for those inspiring and DAILY notes.
Dan, I suggest to them to share their knowledge to help one in similar fashion, the rewards are we enhance the team, workforce, group, etc.. into development of talent creating a powerful movement of knowledge and wisdom that can handed down as long us everyone contribute their knowledge with the sense of growing. The other side is fearing sharing so much you taught so well you become expendable! I don’t think that way, but some people do. Use you and then drop you! Can be cruel at times this journey!
Interesting and thought provoking topic, Dan! #1 for escaping reciprocity by embracing meritocracy seems confusing to me. If one has “helped” you, how is that not to be seen as a favor earned? Can you give an example of the difference between helping and earning a favor?
First, if you ASK for help and get it, then you darn well should feel obligated, to an extent appropriate to the favor asked. You’d not be the first to fail to make such an effort; unfortunately in my experience you’d be part of a substantial majority. You got your one freebie; so it goes.
Ditto if you get help you needed but didn’t ask for.
I can see the dilemma if someone gives you help you didn’t need and didn’t really want. If I should mention a great business mind and philanthropist such as Bill Gates in a blog post
(i.e. like I just did), even on a blog like this with tons of subscribers where a favorable mention has to be good for your image, he doesn’t really owe me a favor in return.
Even if I could do something noticeably useful for him, there’s no 1:1 deal. Even for people on a normal human scale, I may have to do several things to get someone to notice me at all, and for a while it will be all give and no get. Only after we have a personal relationship is there any expectation of reciprocity.
I appreciate your response. Favor is different from help. Favor focuses on personal growth where help focuses on people growth. Rule of reciprocity does not require obligation. You are right. When you seek help, there must be someone more powerful than you. People feel happy helping others. But when you seek favor, you are more likely obligated. Seeking help makes one deeply rooted to people. It connects and make people more powerful. And it is the sign of great leaders.
When seeking help, one needs to show the picture and concern for help. Other should be convinced and find right reasons for that. Only seeking helping without much justification, may not be valuable proposition. Provide justification and you are more likely to get help.
Thank you for all the encouragement and help your posts provide. Appreciate them greatly.
Lots caught my eye in this post, maybe most especially: “The rule of reciprocity says it’s offensive to let someone help you without being prepared to return the favor. ‘I’ve done you a favor. Now you do me a favor.'”
You have it right in my opinion when you used the word, ‘prepared’ in the quote cited. As you mention elsewhere, the help give must truly HELP move things forward and should never be automatically expected. Most especially the help expected in return (1) should never be allowed to become expected and (2) should never show favoritism – never!!!
As for the question asked: “[H]ow does one overcome feeling obligated after receiving help?” My answer: You should NEVER feel obligated to ‘return the favor’ – NEVER! If the help received is truly helpful, it needs to be acknowledged and will increase the probability of being reciprocated most likely – with YOU deciding what it is!
Amazing keynote and it was a pleasure to meet you in person. I feel if we had an hour after your speech, we could have filled it with valuable discussions. I repeatedly asked customers and colleagues throughout the remainder of the week, “Did you see Dan’s keynote?”, then would elaborate on areas of it … especially the concept of pouring yourself out every day in service of others. Keep up the great work as it is making a difference.
Thanks Thomas. Wow! You are very kind. It’s a real privilege to be of service to The Reliable Plant Conference. It’s great to be part of the leadership conversation.
Best for the journey.
Interesting … the first thing that came to my mind was that it is greater to give than receive … when someone gives me the opportunity to support them I feel blessed and rewarded immediately – I feel this is why many of us take on the role of coaches .. to help people — as is the case with many of the leaders I am so honored to work with …
Making it clear that reciprocity on a pay it forward basis helps resolve a number of issues.
My question for you would be on how you would respond to subordinates that have a mindset of entitlement where the “help me help you” motto is interpreted differently as a right and not a privilege.