Solution Saturday: Stumped by a Question

An audience member stumped me with a question. I don’t like saying, “I don’t know,” in front of a thousand people, but last Tuesday in Louisville, KY, I did. He questioned something I said.

I encourage leaders to receive help, during my “Finding Fire” presentation. Bonnie St. John calls it being helpable.

Those who receive the most help go the furthest.

Rejecting help creates a leadership lid. For example, growing organizations always outgrow the talent and energy of their current leadership teams.

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The question:

An audience member stood up and asked, how does one overcome feeling obligated after receiving help? If leaders let people help them, how do they not obligate themselves to return favors.

Receiving help takes you further than rejecting it. But, the sense of obligation you feel after receiving help may prevent you from receiving help in the first place.

The rule:

The rule of reciprocity says it’s offensive to let someone help you without being prepared to return the favor. “I’ve done you a favor. Now you do me a favor.”

In some cultures the rule of reciprocity is sacred. Helping is a tool to generate obligations. Receiving help becomes a ball-n-chain.

After some thought, I have a response.

4 ways to escape reciprocity:

#1. Embrace meritocracy:

Reject the idea that receiving help obligates you to give someone a favor they haven’t earned.

On the other hand, the rule of reciprocity applies when it suggests that those who give the most value earn the best opportunities.

Reciprocity as merit is healthy and expected.

#2. Reject personal favors:

Servant leaders receive help in order to expand their ability to serve others. Help is not a personal favor. Helping you is helping your organization. Reject personal favors.

Helping a servant leader is helping those they serve.

#3. Helping you is helping themselves:

Those who help you are helping themselves. They:

  1. Develop their skills.
  2. Build relationships.
  3. Increase their worth by adding value.
  4. Make meaningful contribution.

Your obligation is to give opportunities to those who deliver value; not favors to incompetence.

#4. Express gratitude:

Gratitude, recognition, and honor answer the rule of reciprocity in leadership. Privately express gratitude and publicly acknowledge those who help you.

Merit governs promotion and opportunity in ethical organizations.

Teams and reciprocity:

Teams function on the principle of reciprocity. You help others – others help you. Don’t reject the rule of reciprocity, embrace it.

You shouldn’t be on a team if you aren’t giving and receiving help.

Receiving help from a servant leader’s perspective:

Receiving help:

  1. Develops others.
  2. Maximizes talent.
  3. Expands organizational capacity.
  4. Encourages ownership and engagement in others.
  5. Reflects a passion for excellence.
  6. Tells others they matter.
  7. Humbles you.
  8. Creates opportunities for you to celebrate others.
  9. Strengthens relationships.
  10. Frees you to maximize your strengths.

How might you answer the reciprocity question from the audience?

*I relax my 300 word limit on Solution Saturdays.

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