Paying It Forward: A Culture of Sharing in Business

Last week I received an e-mail from a foreign-born acquaintance also living in southern Norway in which she told me about what a hard time she was having trying to schedule a meeting with an HR manager in the region’s largest offshore manufacturing company in order to tell this woman about the services her consulting company could provide. This manager had cancelled several meetings at the last second, using her excessive workload as an excuse. My acquaintance wrote that she was starting to lose her nerve; however, landing this big account would give her own start-up company a well-needed boost, so she didn’t want to give up. What should she do?

I replied by sending her contact information for a different HR manager in the same offshore company who had “taken me in from the cold” and given me a chance that ended with my running an intercultural communication course for the staff members in her department. Perhaps my writer could try this person instead and get a more positive response? She wrote back, thanking me for making this unexpected offer of help. Then, instead of replying with the more traditional “You’re welcome”, or the somewhat less traditional “I know that you’d do the same for me”, I wrote the following: “I know that you’ll do the same for someone else in the future.”

A familiar concept

This idea of paying it forward instead of back is not new, but rather has been in circulation for several years. The concept is that you do a good deed for a third party after somebody else has done something positive for you. It differs from the idea of donating money to a good cause, for example Red Cross, by emphasizing the importance of your actively helping another individual – in whatever great or small way this may be – by doing it in person.

Interestingly, not long after the above e-mail exchange took place, I happened to read a LinkedIn article in which this seemingly simple idea of paying it forward had been transferred to the business world: “The Five-Minute Favor” is a book written by American business consultant Adam Rifkin. His writing is based on the notion that if we take five minutes a day to help out another individual in the workplace, not only will this change our own lives for the better (a touch of altruism = personal happiness), but it can also lead new business groups’ growth and development. Rifkin writes that his type of favor may be divided into two actions that we all can perform: 1) share your knowledge with another person and 2) introduce people who might gain from becoming acquainted with one another.

Personal action is the key

How to make this kind of positive difference in five minutes? One example of the first action has become more common in recent years, that of forwarding an interesting article to someone else via social media. Other examples that require a little more effort are writing a brief yet concise review of something you have read and sending it to the author. Another is to first use a locally produced product and then give the manufacturer constructive feedback about your experience of it. Or give someone a brief recommendation in social media. As regards the second action, the easiest way to perform it is to write an e-mail in which you introduce two individuals who have something in common and who you think will benefit from getting to know one another in a professional capacity. Or follow the example above and pass along the name of a contact person who may be able to help someone trying to get a foot in the door, so to speak, of a company or organization.

When paying it back is too high a price

Of course, as the old phrase goes, certain people don’t want anyone else “doing them any favors”. Perhaps they’re afraid of landing in a favor-based debtors’ prison to the other person – they’ll be forced into the position of having to pay them back, which is a place they don’t want to be, as they’d just as soon not feel obligated to pay anyone back, ever. In this case the idea of “paying it forward” can be a liberating one for these individuals, as they avoid this debt and the responsibility it implies and are instead free to help a different individual when the occasion arises.

And my acquaintance who needed a break? Last I heard, she had gotten an appointment to go in and give her pitch to the offshore company. The rest, as they say, is up to her. I just hope by now that she has paid it forward to someone else in need of help and therefore made – all on her own – the always challenging and often intimidating (business) world just a touch more wonderful place to be.

Don’t speak Norwegian? Interested in developing your professional skills? Many Tekna courses are offered in English around the country.

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