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Do me a favour: if you help someone at work, don’t expect payback

Assuming deals are reciprocal can get us into trouble — and make us prowl the office like a mafia don

As she stepped down as British home secretary, Suella Braverman produced with a flourish what she believed was proof of a deal with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak. She claimed he agreed to a list of her conditions for taking on the role. But there is a technical hitch: he never signed it.

It was the latest example of a phenomenon that has long fascinated me: people who make deals that turn out to be imaginary.

We’ve probably all seen a friend come a cropper by assuming a personal commitment was mutual, only to be let down with a bump. At work, similar problems seem most often to centre on misinterpreting doing favours, or giving help as a down payment on a future reciprocal good turn – mentally banking a useful IOU.

Well I’ll let you in on something: those deals aren’t worth the paper they’re not even written on.


Naomi Shragai, the workplace psychotherapist, agreed these imaginary deals, the ones “we hold in our heads” assuming the other person is on board, can be a minefield, as can our wider attitude to getting and giving help at work.

“There’s nothing wrong with doing favours – it’s how we build allies, how we build trust,” she told me. But the expectation of reciprocity can seem manipulative or even “malevolent” to some.

Intriguingly, a younger acquaintance said her peers tended to feel horribly burdened by the obligations they felt at work to those who helped them. Maybe these friends of hers are right to suspect colleagues expect something in return – I’ve certainly received professional offers that seemed to have too much potential for strings attached.

That, Shragai insisted, would be a misreading in the majority of cases. But she added that it paid to be smart about what was going on. “Sometimes you can trust your instincts as to whether someone is expecting a payback.”

Building networks by helping each other is one thing but it’s quite another, she told me, to set up obligations as a safety net if a workplace has become a threatening environment. This is paranoid behaviour and “spreads very quickly”: look out for it in yourself and others. “Paranoid people are not expecting a reciprocal favour, they’re looking for protectors.”

Once alerted to this dynamic, I noticed something slightly shameful: my own tiny twinges of resentment if I felt people might be a bit, well, backward in coming forward with something that might repay my help. I suppose I too was in the market for professional payback.

The whole scenario seemed very gangsterland – extracting IOUs, looking for protectors – and fraught with anxiety on both sides. Sure enough, I then stumbled across a blog about the phenomenon that warned workers to be wary of our “inner gangster”, prowling around at work like a mafia don collecting markers from colleagues to whom we’ve done some sort of good turn.

The author suggested we should question our own motives when offering help. Do we actually want people to be beholden to us?

Taking the idea of the implicit deal in this direction leads to the methods of the mob, psychologically at least, and I’m hoping readers don’t want to consciously imitate organised crime. But sometimes, as Shragai acknowledged, a system of mutually advantageous favours is part of building alliances. And Braverman aside, it can deliver verifiable results.

Think of Charlie Wilson, the Texan congressman previously remarkable only for his social life, who changed the course of history by calling in multiple favours across Washington in support of his late-chosen cause. This single individual managed to direct millions of American dollars to Afghanistan’s fight against the Russian invasion in the 1980s. He lent his vote and offered help to others as a quid pro quo.

After a book about his feat was made into a film with Tom Hanks in the lead role, contemporaries said Hollywood had if anything toned down how crazily outsize his impact had been. Asked how the mujahideen had managed to defeat the mighty Soviet army, General Zia of Pakistan simply replied: “Charlie did it.”

Though the historical record shows the downsides of Wilson’s one-man global intervention, you can’t deny it was a dramatic success for payback culture.

We’re yet to see whether the UK political drama will play out in such a way that Braverman can ever claim a measurable impact, positive or negative. But in the meantime ... I owe you one for reading. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023

Pilita Clark is away