Our Inner Gangster

How We Cleverly Use Favors to Make Others Feel Indebted

Dwight being “helpful” on NBC’s The Office.

When I coach people on Holacracy practice, I’m particularly sensitive to people offering to help each other. Now, on the surface it’s absurd. That’s because what most people hear me saying is, “It’s bad to help people.”

But that’s not what I said. What I actually said was, I’m “sensitive” to people helping each other. Meaning, my ears perk up, my attention focuses in, and I ask myself, “What kind of help is this?” Here’s why.

Most people subscribe to the belief, “If I help you then you should help me,” without realizing this belief is essentially the same way gangsters operate. It’s an old trick. Help someone, but refuse any immediate payment. Then hold that debt over their head. You can almost hear the gangster’s voice say, “No problem. I was just in a position to help you…and maybe someday you’ll be in a position to help me.” *wink *wink *

This is usually what happens when we offer help to someone (and it’s especially likely when we help someone without being asked). We actually expect them to help us back. Which, when you think about it, isn’t actually a favor at all.

It’s not really a gift if you’re expecting something in return — it’s more like a transaction. But not a fair one. We aren’t negotiating with a willing partner who understands the terms and conditions of our exchange. No, we’re coercing someone into our debt.

And should they break the agreement (that they didn’t even know existed), we feel completely justified in feeling upset because they clearly aren’t playing by the rules. Since, the other person is blissfully unaware of all of this, the real problem isn’t that we are fooling them. It’s that we are fooling ourselves.

Our darker selves are unconsciously playing the classic game of “Take out more than you put in.” Help offered this way has nothing to do with being a good person. Or being nice. It’s just a habit. Manipulate by leveraging the basic human impulse for reciprocity. And it’s not like I’m even saying there is anything wrong with it. “You scratch my back, I scratch yours,” is an pervasive strategy precisely because it works well.

Children who are being socialized or anyone who is completely absorbed in their own interests, need to learn how to get along with others. It’s the basic learning objective of our social reality; “Learn to integrate your selfish needs with the needs of others.”

The problem is that once this developmental lesson has been integrated, it becomes an anchor. A limitation on one’s further development. Even if research shows that a significant majority of the world’s population operates according to this basic principle, (usually something like 75%), there is no need to stay there.

Now, if there were no alternative, no better process or rule-of-thumb to help us figure out what we can and can’t expect of each other, then I’d be all for it. If that’s as high as we got. Fine. But it’s not. Because as adults we have the ability to differentiate and explicitly clarify favors from expectations.

Because of course there is nothing wrong with helping someone. The very nature of relationship means that there are certain duties we can expect from each other. They are the rules that bind us together and define the boundary between in the relationship and outside the relationship. But usually we don’t talk about these duties explicitly, and therefore it’s extremely difficult to negotiate or update those expectations. And it’s not our fault. Most of us never learned that this was even a thing. Which means while we have the capacity to clarify expectations, we rarely do it.

Yet if I don’t know what you should expect from me, then how can I know I’m meeting those expectations? When I get yelled at? Blamed? Pushed away? That’s a poor feedback loop. It’s like having a car that signals “low fuel” by exploding.

And what about the times when you really do want to help without any expectation in return? How could I know that’s what you’re doing, unless I already know what I can expect from you? The only reason I can appreciate the cashier who chases me down to return my wallet is because I know this isn’t a defined part of her job (i.e. a duty of our “relationship”).

So, there is nothing wrong with helping people. And there is nothing wrong with doing favors just to be owed favors. It’s the same tactic used by the mafia, or if you prefer less dramatic examples, Christmas-card-giving garbage men, and “free”-return-address-label-offering charities. It’s a perfectly viable sales strategy.

But given our natural intuitions to navigate work politics the same way children navigate schoolyards, I think it makes sense to keep our eyes open. “Help,” which was given freely, can quickly morph into an expectation of help. Which is why I’m sensitive to people “helping” each other.

And it’s mostly because I want to notice it in myself. Through my own day-to-day work in a Holacracy-powered organization, I’ve become familiar with the surge of righteous indignation I feel because some great injustice has been done to me. It doesn’t happen as much, but I suspect it will always happen. Because I can’t often know if I’m truly helping someone without any expectation of return (i.e. I’m overflowing with OK-ness and I can’t help expressing it), or if my inner racketeer is offering “favors” to get his own needs met. And since I can’t know in advance, my felt sense of frustration is the way I find out.

In those moments of frustration it takes a lot of courage to ask myself, “Do I have the right to expect that (because they consciously agreed to something), or am I really trying to buy something?” More often than not, I realize I compromised something in myself. I gave up something I didn’t want to and now I feel owed.

Obviously, the solution isn’t just to swallow the frustration, but use it as a signal to discover the agreements (or duties) that need to be clarified.

In Holacracy practice, there are a few ways to do this. First, you may be able to articulate those expectations in governance. If so, great. Propose something and take it from there. Second, you could review the defined duties of all role-fillers specified in the constitution (article 4.1). Since, everyone in the organization has already agreed to play by those rules, you can refer to those expectations to figure out how justified your sense of injustice may be. And I’d prioritize exploring governmental or constitutional solutions first because they are usually under-utilized.

But they may not help. It’s possible nothing in the constitution or your governance helps and you truly have a person-to-person issue. Meaning, you just expect coworkers to treat each other a certain way (you could think of these as, “the duties of co-workers”). And just like governance, these expectations can be captured somewhere to be reviewed and updated (e.g. “I will speak from own experience and not leap to inferences about what others believe.”)

Regardless of how we go about resolving the issue, the one thing I know is that my conventional strategy of guilt-tripping never makes things better. Even if I successfully coerce some surface-level compliance, the tear in the relationship will likely become a new scar rather than new muscle.

So, let’s not fool ourselves. When you offer help (or a favor) and you’re expecting help back — you’re not really helping. You’re trying to trick them into an agreement with unspecified terms.

We can at least be honest about that. And when we’re honest about our natural gangster-like tendency to use favors and blame, we actually become more capable of noticing it. Ultimately, and maybe ironically, this leads to more caring relationships, because when we know there is no expectation to help, we’re more likely to do it. Capiche?