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You’re gonna scratch my back next, right?

Have you ever asked for a professional favor—such as an introduction to a key contact, participation on your committee, or an endorsement for yourself or organization—and felt strange about it? Have you ever been approached for a favor and felt put off by the request? Professional favors do not come cheap, especially connections, commitments, and testimonials. These involve time, energy, and the risk of looking bad by association. However, practicing giving and reciprocity can help overcome the awkward feelings attached to professional favor requests and can build significant good will.

We are socially programmed to give back

According to social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini*, the reciprocity rule states that when you give, help, invite, or provide a meaningful service to others, the recipients will feel obligated to repay you in some manner. Reciprocity is a strong, socially-driven impulse that time and again proves true. For example, have you ever:

  • received a free sample of food or candy, then considered patronizing the vendor offering the sample?
  • received a charity solicitation with personalized mailing labels or magnets, and felt a strong urge to give to the charity?
  • received a holiday card from a co-worker or acquaintance, then added that person to your exclusive holiday mailing list?
  • done something very helpful without expecting anything in return, then later received generous gifts, gratitude, or favor?

Please, try a free sample–and you will be in my POWER

When you think about the times you were most eager to help others, had those people been previously helpful to you? For many, receiving favors, help, support, communications, or gifts makes future reciprocity feel compulsory.

Give before you ask

On the contrary, when people have approached you for favors, but have not helped or offered you help in the past, how did you feel? When a relationship has not been historically reciprocal, it is not uncommon to feel put off by requests and less motivated to meet them. No one likes to feel “taken.” This highlights the flip side of the reciprocity rule: requesting professional favors, without a prior history of offering them, tends to provoke resistance, annoyance, or the rhetorical pondering, “What have you done for me lately?” Typically, people ignore or decline those requests.

What about people who frequently approach you for favors (which you provide), but later do not act very helpful or seem hesitant to return favors? Are they not breaking the rule? Are they too narcissistic to give back to you? Perhaps, but they also demonstrate another dynamic of the reciprocity rule: granting requests for professional favors is far less powerful than offering favors in advance of a request. It is the explicit act of giving, not the favor itself, that compels recipients to repay favors.

For example, imagine you work in an office, and the receptionist likes to take lunch at noon, but cannot leave until she has made arrangements for someone to answer phones during her break. If she approaches you and asks that you cover the phones, no matter how enthusiastically you accept the task, she is likely to view your behavior as cooperative, but not as giving. Simply being agreeable and accepting all requests generally does not win reciprocity points, and may even decrease influence, giving the impression that you are universally available and that your time is not valuable. However, if you approach the receptionist and offer to cover the phones so she can take lunch, before she asks, then she will clearly interpret the behavior as giving, and may feel obligated to give back in some manner at a later time. This highlights how anticipating requests and offering assistance proactively will help you maximize the reciprocity rule and produce greater returns.

Give, give, give

Knowing the power of reciprocity, why not be proactive, and start the cycle yourself? To start sowing seeds for professional favors, instead of asking for them, you can start offering something of value to select people who can help you in the future. Here are some ideas for what you might offer:

  • a written recommendation or testimonial (in an article, on a web site, or on LinkedIn.com if the person has a profile)
  • a needed service, such as publicity/ marketing, consultation, speaking, writing, research, organizing, education, or mentoring
  • assistance with duties or tasks if you see an ally becoming overwhelmed
  • a lead for sales, recruiting, fundraising, professional referrals, or networking
  • your time, for organizing or staffing an event or major project

Unless you are born into royalty, the best way to be on the receiving end of this is to give often, without the expectation of return

Since the act of giving fuels reciprocity, offering services and assistance must be altruistic at heart. Although one can hope that giving will lead to future returns of favors, the offers must be given without a concrete expectation of returns. Coming across to others as “giving with expectations” or strings attached has no more advantage than directly requesting a favor, and can create the same awkward feelings. However, when practicing pure giving, if someone acknowledges your helpfulness, you are free to reinforce a sense of reciprocity with remarks like, “I’m sure you’d do the same for me,” “It’s important that we look out for each other,” or “I just like to be helpful to people that matter to me.”

by Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL


* Cialdini, R.B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: HarperCollins.