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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.

Key points

  • Gratitude, witnessing prosocial acts, and helping others contributes to the well-being of givers and receivers.
  • Emotions fuel the giving-receiving cycle that is central to the functioning of human communities.
  • Psychological entitlement, or not expressing thankfulness sincerely, may stifle the giving-receiving cycle.

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.

3. Failure to Express Sincere Gratitude

Thanking a person who helps you motivates additional prosocial behavior. Research shows that the expression of gratitude motivates the helper to help you again, as well as to pay it forward and help third parties. This chain of reciprocity breaks when we fail to say thank you or give only faint thanks. For some, this may stem from psychological entitlement—a belief that one deserves to be helped and doesn’t need to say thanks. Whatever the reason, expressing thankfulness is an essential part of the giving-receiving cycle. Your expression doesn’t have to be effusive (unless it is warranted by the magnitude and humanity of the offer, as was the case with Emily Johnson and Christy Lewis) but it does have to be sincere.

4. Failure to Follow Through or Follow Up

Following through occurs right after the offer is made. Suppose, for example, that you made a request for a referral to a subject matter expert. If someone offered to make a referral, you should follow through right away to get the expert’s contact information or to have the person introduce you to the expert. Sometimes, however, I’ve observed that some people don’t follow through. Failing to follow through might be due to procrastination or because the request was resolved a different way or by a different person. Whatever the reason, it’s still the responsibility of the requester to follow through with the person who made an offer. Not doing so means the person is less likely to help you in the future.

Following up takes place after you address the issue that prompted your request in the first place. It means circling back to every person who made an offer to help you and telling each one what happened—even if you didn’t ultimately resolve the issue. Too often, those who offer help never know what happened. Following up closes the loop. It lets your helpers know the impact they’ve made. Doing so generates positive emotions and increases the chances your helpers will help you again.

When we clearly ask for what we need, graciously accept offers, express gratitude for them, follow through and follow up, our actions create positive emotions that energize the giving-receiving cycle. These actions promote additional prosocial behaviors and strengthen the “honored network” of reciprocity in groups, organizations, and communities.

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