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4 Ways We Disrupt the Cycle of Generosity

How we ask for help — or how we respond to it — can make all the difference.

Written by: Wayne Baker
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Would you give your COVID vaccination appointment to a stranger? That’s what one person did in Austin, Texas. According to a story in the national press (here and here), Emily Johnson, a 68-year-old grandmother, faced open-heart surgery and needed to be vaccinated before the operation. Despite considerable effort, she wasn’t able to get an appointment. She posted her dilemma on the online platform Nextdoor. Christy Lewis, a stranger who lived in the area, offered her appointment to Johnson. Lewis was high-risk herself but felt that Johnson’s need was greater. They went to the clinic together. After explaining their situation to the supervisor, both received the vaccine.

If this story made you feel good, it’s because witnessing prosocial acts produces a warm glow. If the story inspired you to help others, it’s because witnessing prosocial acts increases the motivation to do so. Similarly, gratitude for help motivates paying it forward. Helping others enhances meaning in life and contributes to the well-being of givers and receivers.

All of these emotions fuel the giving-receiving cycle that is central to the functioning of human communities. Indeed, archeologist Richard Leakey considered the “honored network” of reciprocity—when our ancestors learned to share skills and food—to be what made us human.

Yet, sometimes we disrupt the cycle by how we ask for help or how we respond to offers of help. When we do so, people stop helping us.

Based on years of working with managers, executives, scientists, engineers, business students, and more, I’ve observed four ways that people impede the giving-receiving process—as well as how to avoid them.

1. Failure to Actually Ask

Failure to clearly and explicitly ask for what you need is a common reason why people don’t help. When a consultant I know launched his firm, he had lunch a few times with a neighbor who was an expert in sales. At the end of one lunch, his neighbor said, “We’ve met a couple of times and established that there are many ways I could help your company, including direct referrals and introductions. Yet, not once have you asked me to help you with what you need. If you’re going to be successful, you’re going to learn how to be direct and ask for what you need and want.”

I’ve learned in my research and practice that most people are willing to help, but they don’t know what you need and can’t help until you tell them. An effective ask follows SMART criteria: Specific, Meaningful (the “why” of the request), Action-oriented (asking for something to be done), Realistic, and Time-bound (a specific deadline). Remember, too, that an ask is a request, not a demand. 

2. Failure to Accept Offers Graciously

Most people who ask for help are happy to get offers of help. Sometimes, however, I’ve observed ungracious responses to offers of help, such as “I already know that!” “I tried that, and it doesn’t work.” “That’s not going to work.” Disappointment with the content of the offers might be the reason behind these discourteous responses. Indeed, the recipient may already know what was offered or have tried it and it didn’t work. No matter. The person who made the offer was trying to help.

It’s important to separate the act of offering help from the content of the offer. An offer of help is a very human gesture. It implies an affiliative motive. Rebuffing an offer of help is hurtful and reduces the chances the person will try to help again. If it happens in a group setting, such as when you use one of the team tools I describe in All You Have to Do Is Ask, it will stifle others who were about to help. Gratitude is the proper response to an offer, a sincere acknowledgment of the act of offering regardless of the content. 

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