One of the most common mistakes in the back-and-forth trading of favors at work is that of showing insufficient gratitude. Now, it can be difficult to figure out what someone expects in return for providing useful advice or for helping a colleague win a promotion — but ignorance of the rules of reciprocity is no excuse.

Some people are specific about what they expect in return for a favor. Most, however, believe that the recipient should be able to figure out what’s expected. It can seem a little crass to stipulate what one wants in return for helping out. Yet, not clearly stating the anticipated nature of a payback — or even disclaiming that there is any debt — can’t be trusted. “It was nothing,” “It was my pleasure,” “Don’t mention it,” should be taken with a grain of salt.

Even when businesspeople help others out of sheer altruism, reciprocated respect at the very least is quietly expected. If you fail to provide it, your Good Samaritan may quickly become cool in demeanor toward you, and eventually even turn into an opponent.

With all this obfuscation, how do you estimate the amount of reciprocity required? What chits are owed, especially at work? If you aren’t fortunate enough to notice or become privy to the give-and-take rules at your company, then seeking others’ advice may be your best option. A mentor can be quite helpful in this kind of situation. 

For some people, expressing gratitude can be sufficient. With others, a sincere and public compliment or strong support in an important endeavor may do the trick. Perhaps you may have a special skill or knowledge to offer.

Stay on the safe side. Don’t publicly disagree with the person who holds your chit. Wait until your favor has been repaid and some time has passed. A fresh favor not yet returned can make many donors extremely sensitive.

In the absence of experience or good mentoring, when granted a favor consider asking, “Is there something I can do for you?” If the person resists or can’t give you an answer, you might ask, “Can I at least take you to lunch?” 

You’ll want to avoid incurring debts with people who have high reciprocity expectations, even for the loan of a pencil. They exist and they’re dangerous.

Favors are a fact of life in business. They’re a good opportunity to make friends, but often also create enemies. If you’re going to give or accept a favor, it pays to know what you’re getting into.


Kathleen also blogs about communication, negotiation, and politics here.


Photo: Igor.stevanovic / Shutterstock