I want to tackle a slightly controversial topic.
Controversial because you may have heard the networking mantra of ‘Giver’s Gain’. This is a simple formula which says if you help others, they will feel indebted to you and be minded to return the favour. It’s a principle based on reciprocity.
Giver’s gain is often mentioned in the context of adopting a mindset when preparing for networking activity. As the theory goes, you should not attend an event armed with a wish list of what other people can do to help you. You should instead think about how you can help them.
This is a fine principle which I am sure works well in plenty of networking interactions. In fact, we can recategorise the context by referring to the exchange not as an interaction, but as a transaction. That’s a transaction as in the passing across of one thing, in anticipation and full expectation of a return in the opposite direction.
Social norms tell us that this transactional exchange doesn’t have to be expressed explicitly; it is implied. Look at it another way, every gift or favour is value-laden whatever its nature. If it wasn’t, we’d have no need for anti-bribery legislation!
But I want to introduce you to a twist on this direct reciprocity. For some, it requires a leap of faith and perhaps stepping outside of a comfort zone. The twist is simply to give to others with absolutely no expectation of anything in return. That’s right, none, zero, zilch.
Direct reciprocity implies that help can only be asked of those you have helped in the past.
However, the political scientist Robert Putnam has pointed to a principle of generalised reciprocity. This can be summarised in the phrase “I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.”
So here the help is bounded by a statement that a return of the favour will originate not from the taker, but from some other source. It’s a kind of “I’m happy to help for no return, knowing this will come back to me somehow”. Some would say this introduces an idealised karma, suggesting a natural equilibrium between givers and takers.
Wharton Professor, Adam Grant, highlights two variations on this. Version one is a more assertive response from the giver which is “I’ll do this for you, but don’t help me in return. Instead, help me to help someone else”.
This switches the emphasis from ‘paying it back’ to ‘paying it forward’. It can be seen as a way of multiplying and spreading the good that can come from the initial single act of help. The broader distribution of the benefit is the encouragement to adopt a more generous mindset (help me to help others).
Version two plays upon the work of influence and persuasion expert, Robert Cialdini. Cialdini points to the holding of a moment of power after another party has said thank you for the help we have provided. In his view, how we respond to the thanks leverages that power.
I’m not overly enthusiastic about the use of words that suggest control. But there is no doubt that receiving thanks does open up an opportunity to spread the giving habit. And this is beyond the simple and perhaps benign reply of ‘You’re welcome’.
Cialdini’s suggested response to leverage power is “I know you’d do the same for me”. Grant prefers “You’re welcome. I know you’d do the same for someone else”.
It’s a subtle inflexion, but my preference is “I know you’ll do some good for someone else”.
This carries a general expectation of good that doesn’t imply a matching of the initial give. Using the caveat “do some good” is agreeably vague.
This leaves the quality and quantity of the pay forward at the discretion of the taker. The pay forward could be lower in value but similarly, it might be higher.
Such subtleties can be dismissed as irrelevant and easily overridden by the words we all employ automatically in common usage. However, norms have to start somewhere. Using a variant to the standard ‘You’re welcome’ response might, could or should allow for a wider and more expansive growth of goodwill.
If we truly wish to give with no expectation of payback, we could conclude that might, could or should are acceptable outcomes.