Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 47;   November 19, 2008:

Favors, Payback, and Thoughtlessness

by

Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
Three adult male chimpanzees during a grooming session

Three adult male chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda, during a grooming session. The human patterns of social reciprocity are not solely human. They can also be found, for example, in chimpanzees, which exhibit reciprocity with respect to grooming and food sharing. See Kristin E. Bonnie and Frans B.M. deWaal: "Primate Social Reciprocity and the Origin of Gratitude," in The Psychology of Gratitude, Robert A. Emmons, Michael E. McCullough, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Order from Amazon.com. Photo by John Mitani, courtesy WhyFiles.org.

When someone at work asks for a favor, you might grant it on the grounds of friendship, teamwork, or affection. But at times, we receive collegial or businesslike requests for favors from people who are neither friend nor foe. Let's assume that there are no ethical questions involved; that it would be perfectly proper to say either yes or no.

To decide what to do, consider both your choices and the seeker's. What are your choices?

Grant the favor
If the effort involved is minimal, and if the negative consequences to you are minimal, granting the favor is a good choice. Otherwise, think about another option.
Deny the favor
People sometimes get unhappy when we say no, and sometimes they act out of anger or disappointment. Denying a favor can have negative consequences, but if you're sure nothing too terrible will happen, denying the favor is a possibility.
Defer the favor
You might suggest that it isn't convenient or possible right now, and suggest that the seeker contact you at a future date. At that time, you can start all over again.
Make a counteroffer
If granting, denying, and deferring aren't appealing options, perhaps you can offer something else instead. Figuring out what to offer is easier with help and advice. You can ask the seeker directly, or consult someone you trust.

And what are the seeker's choices? In part, your decision depends on an assessment of the seeker's response. We can classify the responses of seekers in four patterns.

Appreciative
If you grant the favor, the appreciative seeker expresses appreciation and returns the favor immediately, or at least, someday soon.
If you don't expect an appreciative response, and you aren't indebted yourself, exerting significant effort might be unwise.
The appreciative favor-seeker expresses
appreciation and returns the favor
immediately, or at least, someday soon
Vengeful
If you don't grant the favor, the vengeful seeker might extract a price from you, or threaten to do so.
If you expect a vengeful response to a denial, deferment, or counteroffer, it's wise to search for a low-effort way to satisfy the seeker, especially if the seeker is more powerful than you are.
Thoughtless
The thoughtless seeker accepts what you offer with little expression of appreciation.
Granting big favors to the unappreciative gets tiresome quickly. Find a low-effort way to satisfy the thoughtless, or consider denial, deferment, or a counteroffer.
Passive
The passive seeker doesn't mind much when you deny the favor.
It's tempting to simply deny the requests of the passives, but take care. Passivity can arise from powerlessness. When it does, and when it's coupled with a long memory, vengeful payback at a later date is always possible.

This framework is completely unnecessary when the seeker is a friend or ally or someone you know and like. In that circumstance, it's best to do what feels right. And sometimes, it is an ally of the seeker who is really asking the favor. In that case, applying this framework to the seeker's ally can yield a different result. Go to top Top  Next issue: It's a Wonderful Day!  Next Issue

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