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Esquire Guy

The Esquire Guy Breaks Down the Politics of Favors

Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
min read

This story appears in the March 2014 issue of . Subscribe »

Whether or not you do the favor isn't the important thing. What's important is how you say yes or no. And how you should say yes or no is: moralistically. You run the risk of seeming uptight and condescending and a little preachy, but moralistic you must be.

It doesn't matter how big it is--from "Will you have an informational interview with my niece?" to "Will you hire my niece?" to "Will you not fire my niece?" to "Can you please not press charges against my niece?"--every request for a favor comes bundled with implicit points.

Such as:
You have power where I do not.
I will repay this favor at a later date.
I have faith in you.
You are The Man or The Woman.
Also, pleeeeeease?

There are so many unspoken issues that the process can feel smarmy. So when you're asked for a favor, it's important to get a few things out on the table, to take the request head-on, speak what is usually unspoken, shine a little light on the quid pro quo of it all.

You could say, "Sure," of course, but then all you're doing is acceding. Which is a wasted opportunity. Note the differences between these two answers:

Option 1: "Sure."
Option 2: "Sure, Dave. You've been a good friend to my business over the years. I'm happy to do this. I know you'd do the same for me."

What you've done with the second option is definitively answer the question, exhibit magnanimity, tack enthusiasm onto agreement and de-smarmify the implicit promise of reciprocation by simply acknowledging it out in the open, transforming a favor's unspoken IOU to YDOMAIJWTTTOTNHMBTRI (You Don't Owe Me Anything I Just Want to Take This Opportunity to Note How Mutually Beneficial This Relationship Is).

You've also established that you're thoughtful about the promises you make--that when it involves your business, you're not going to agree to just anything. You've effected another kind of transformation, as well: You've transformed a request that seems personal into something professional, because you've refocused things on your company, the moral center around which the whole thing should be revolving.

"It's more respectable to say no if you highlight that it's not about the person you're declining, but rather that you're trying to maintain your commitment to another set of people," says Adam Grant, professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

The beauty of this approach is that you're not the one doing or not doing the favor. Your company is doing or not doing the favor. You've made clear that if the favor is not right for the company, then the favor won't get done. It's all about the company.

A Few Words on the Various Characters Involved

Grant divides the parties into three types:

  1. Takers "will do a favor when they think they can get a larger one back or when they are trying to impress someone powerful or influential."
  2. Matchers "believe it's important to trade favors evenly, so their favors come to either reciprocate one given in the past or perhaps to earn an equal one in the future."
  3. Givers "do favors, for the most part, without strings attached and are willing to offer them, usually to people they don't feel they owe anything to."

It's always bewildering when you come across a taker. What are these people thinking? They're conspicuous. They're bad actors. And they're annoying. They're like Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III. The way to deal with a taker is the same way you deal with any favor: You acknowledge the request, say yes or no (depending on what's good for your company) and explain the reasons you're saying yes or no. Easy.

Why You Really Should Say No From Time to Time

The primary reason to say no to a request is, of course, that saying yes just doesn't feel right. You'd be compromising your principles or your company's mission, or you're just not able to provide the kind of help the requester is looking for.

But there's another reason to say no. In his research, Grant uncovered that givers tend to finish last: "By going out of their way to do favors for everyone without expecting anything in return, they end up sacrificing their time and energy and resources for others."

If You Will Allow Us to Undermind That Last Point

But givers tend to finish first, too. Grant concludes that givers who act selflessly are "asking for trouble," yet givers who act with clear conditions--"I am going to be clear about who I help, how I help and when I help"--become more energized, rather than distracted.

"When people follow this setting of boundaries around the who, the how and the when, givers end up outperforming matchers and takers because they build deeper and broader networks," Grant says. "People feel this wasn't just a transaction or a self-serving exchange, but there's some real goodwill. Givers end up benefiting from a lot more reciprocity."

Favors are opportunities--to do good (even when you say no), to build relationships (even when you say no) and to remind those in your professional universe what kind of business you run (even when you say no). And the kind of business you run is one that requires a payment for this kind of service: not money, not some unspoken IOU, not even a cup of coffee, but respect.


Key Technical Matters

When presented with a request for a favor, ask yourself: Will this be good for my business?

If the answer is no, do not do the favor.

But explain why you're not doing the favor.

Then suffer through the inevitable awkwardness that results from your refusal.

A favor requested by a professional superior is not, in fact, a favor. It is a demand.

A request for free products is not a favor.

It is a request for free products.

The rate of favor requests you field will increase proportionally along with your business success.

The rate of disappointing people will, too.

The best way to say yes to a favor is: "Of course!" followed by a much less enthusiastic justification for saying yes. It's a buzzkill, but it's important.

Favors requested over the phone are to be considered more thoughtfully than those requested over e-mail.

Favors requested over e-mail are to be considered more thoughtfully than those requested over Twitter.

Favors requested via congressional subpoena are to be looked over by a lawyer.


Should You Do That Favor?

Can you recommend a good graphic designer? Can you write me a letter of recommendation? "Just say I worked for you once, and I was great. Cool?"
A few minutes of your time? A meal? A meal-length amount of time, without the meal?
Hold this door for me? Hold this sack of money for me? Hold this gun for me?
Mind if I visit your operation? Mind if I look around a little? Mind if I look around a little without you accompanying me?
May I pick your brain? (Asked by someone you know.) May I pick your brain? (Asked by someone you don't know.) May I pick your brain? (Asked by someone you don't know who is holding a thin metallic rod.)

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