Do Me a Favor? See Whether the Ben Franklin Effect Makes Sense to You?

If you have worked in a large complex organization, you have probably discovered that getting things done depends on figuring out who can actually do something you need to have done even if they aren’t the persons who are technically responsible. Sometimes these folks are long serving people in junior positions who have seen it all and take pity on the rest of us to help us through a bureaucratic maze. Other times, these folks are new and don’t know they aren’t supposed to be helpful. If you are a contractor in a large bureaucracy, for example, it literally pays to know who down the chain of command can actually authorize the payment of your invoice and expedite it through the process.

Photo Credit: St. Augustine Lighthouse via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ben Franklin St. Augustine Lighthouse via Compfight cc

At one extreme, we may find ourselves asking these people to do us a favor in order to get basic services that we would think were part of the person’s job. We are thinking, “do me a favor and just do your job!” In some places, there is an entire shadow economy based on paying an “additional consideration” to people to do the job they are already being paid (or sometimes grossly underpaid) to do. On the other hand, we ask our friends to do us favors all the time because they are friends and that’s what friends do.

Recently, I have been thinking about friends and favors in the context of the workplace. It brought to mind the so-called Ben Franklin effect. We tend to assume that people who like us, our friends, are more likely to do us a favor, but it is also apparently true that if you get someone you don’t know to do you a favor, they tend to decide they like you. It’s an example of the power of cognitive dissonance.  We tend to adjust our attitudes to match our behaviors. I did you a favor, therefore I must like you because I do favors for people I like. A further side-effect is that once a person does you a favor, they are more likely to do you another favor in the future.

I had a boss once who would frequently preface a request with phrases like “let me ask you a favor, could you …”  or “could you do me a favor and find out …”  Framed that way, I found I was inclined to say yes.  Sometimes I read this favor-asking as simple politeness that created a more collegial and less hierarchical atmosphere. Other times it signaled a recognition that the request was above and beyond normal expectations. Often it meant, we both knew we had reached a point of diminishing returns, but we were still curious about one last option or a whether a last piece of data I might dig up would prove counter intuitive.

For those of us who are highly motivated by opportunities to be helpful (think NF’s if you are into the MBTI), doing favors is a second career and we a grateful that someone asks. Part of the art of the favor request is figuring out how to frame the request so that it is a favor the other person can do. It helps to pay attention to what people are good at and play to those strengths.

So my suggestion is that you experiment with framing some of your requests in the form of a favor  – “I wonder if I could ask you to do me a favor …”  See how people respond. Not only are you likely to get more help, but you will end up with more friends as the Ben Franklin effect kicks in and they decide they must like you if they are doing all these favors for you. Longer term you might find yourself working with more people you like and who like you. Sometimes giving someone the opportunity to do you a favor is as important as doing them a favor yourself.

Thanks for reading this post and could I ask you to do me another favor and share it with someone else through social media?