When Jay Hargis' colleague called in a favor, the former director of client services had a hard time remembering the favor done for him that he was now tapped to return.
"I was shocked that he remembered I asked him to run the list four months earlier," Hargis says of the favor done for him, which involved printing out a list of customers.
His colleague needed one of Hargis' customers to furnish him with some glowing testimonial that he could spin into a marketing brochure. Feeling like he had little choice, Hargis spent a half day on the phone securing cooperation and approvals. He felt the favor he performed was disproportionately larger than the one he received. But his colleague seemed to think he had bent over backward "by clicking 'Print,"' Hargis recalls.
In any office's underground economy, favors are the currency by which productivity is purchased and goodwill is gained. But the favor exchange rate isn't fixed. Some favors are done with the expectation of nothing returned. Others are performed in the spirit of getting.
Making favors even trickier to grasp and thus easier to game is research suggesting that the deed itself isn't as valued as much as the atmospherics around it. Someone's gender, their apparent willingness and even time elapsed since the favor was performed, can all change a selfless act into something brazenly transactional or vice versa.
The slippery definition of a "favor" explains why some colleagues view the performance of their simplest job duties as an act of heroism. Karen Markin, a college administrator, has run into colleagues whose job includes easy access to information. But it doesn't seem easy when she asks for it.
"They can act like it's moving a mountain," says Markin. "People think they're doing this enormous favor."
In his study of customer-service agents, Frank Flynn, an associate professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business who studies favor exchange, found that soon after the completion of a favor, its recipient thought it was more valuable than the person who granted it. Over time, however, they reversed roles: "The person who received it didn't think it was that big a deal, but the person who granted the favor thought it was a bigger deal."
Understanding the shelf life of a favor granted, some colleagues require immediate favor redemption. Richard Vandagriff occasionally worked with a contractor who was one of those favor accountants. "He doesn't keep a book, but might as well," he says. Once, the man even counterfeited a favor resetting furnace controls that didn't need resetting.
"Now I need a favor from you," he told Vandagriff.
"It was a setup to get me to get one of my people to help him."
The mere mention of the word "favor" can stun us into compliance, which answers a question staffers often ask themselves: How did I get roped into this?
Stanford's Prof. Flynn found that simply asking people to fill out a questionnaire in New York's Penn Station resulted in 57 percent compliance. But prefacing that question with the phrase, "Can you do me a favor?" followed by a pause pushed the level of compliance to 84 percent.
"People have a modal, rote response" to a favor request, says Prof. Flynn, which is: "Yeah, sure, what is it?"
(It should be noted here that research also shows that people appreciate favors more from men than they do from women, because they don't expect favors as much from men.)
Another study shows how easy it can be to get collared into favors that seem too big to grant. In his famous study, Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, asked passersby if they would commit to doing one of the most nerve-racking activities he could dream up: Would you volunteer to chaperone juvenile-detention-center inmates on a day trip to the zoo? (Fun!)
Only 17 percent agreed.
But bartering would change that. When researchers asked another set of people for much more if they'd serve as an unpaid counselor for two hours per week for two years they all said no. But when they then went back to the original question of chaperoning the inmates to the zoo, compliance tripled to 50 percent.
The most common favor-gaming is the repeatedly requested favor. At some point obvious to everyone but the serial requester that will cease to be a favor and become a dependency. Mary Powell, who fills the favor-rich posts of both HR and receptionist, has noticed that the people who ask her repeatedly to help fill out their insurance forms "get disappointed if I say I can't do it."
But sometimes it's just easier to do the serial favor than to resist it. Scott McIntyre, a director at a hospital association, often requests favors of a colleague who understands the company's database much more than he does. She can't be bothered trying to teach him anymore.
"In a lot of cases," McIntyre says, "it's quicker to catch the fish and give it to a person than show him how to fish."