Conversations in Management: Ben Franklin

If you want to make a friend, let someone do you a favor.

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin_youngFranklin’s library card was proving handy in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he and some friends formed The Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. At the time, books were expensive and scarce. The friends reasoned that by pooling their resources, they could buy more books and on a regular basis. This subscription model worked well, and by 1741 the library had moved from a member’s house, to a wing of the Pennsylvania Assembly—what’s now known as Independence Hall.

It was now 1751. Franklin had been elected to the Assembly but his political ambitions were being thwarted by a fellow member; “a gentleman of fortune and education.” He wasn’t easily intimidated by difficult people, but Franklin anticipated this individual would continue to gain in power and influence. For this reason, he believed it was in his best interest to make peace. He wasn’t willing, however, to do so by, “paying any servile respect to him.” It was at this point that the library and Franklin’s intuitive sense of human nature came into play. As the library had expanded and grown in prestige, so had his personal reputation as a scholar.  That gave him the idea that he found so original, he included it in his Autobiography. He wrote, “Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

Franklin had hit upon a psychological principle so reliably true that it’s recognized today as the Franklin Effect. Numerous contemporary studies have shown that providing help is just as important as getting help. It turns out that when you give someone a chance to help you, it makes them feel good about themselves and good about you too. This is even the case when the helper isn’t particularly fond of you to begin with. Now the Machiavellian types will immediately recognize this as a great way to subtly manipulate their enemies. And in fairness, this is precisely what Franklin did. But in a more positive vein, the Franklin Effect tells us something important about ourselves. Most of us, unless desperate, are loathe to accept help much less ask for it. Granted, some of us are better at this than others, but our default setting is to handle things ourselves, thank you very much. Asking for or receiving help can feel like incompetence or worse, failure. But soliciting or even just accepting help builds relationships. It demonstrates that you value, have confidence in and trust the other person. No wonder the helper feels good. Better still, when the actions are reciprocal, it puts the relationship on an equal footing and neither party ends up feeling indebted. In a world filled with complexity, it’s nice to know that graciously accepting a kindness can have such a positive impact. So do me a favor, whether solicited or not, take the next helping hand.    —Ebert

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