Why Paying it Forward Contributes to a Sustainable Culture

8th Jun, 2020

Gratitude, as studies show, can be an incredible motivator. It improves people’s mental and physical health, it enhances the quality of their relations with other people, and it can lead to a lasting feeling of satisfaction and happiness. Sounds like a perfect ingredient to build a successful organizational culture on. So, where is the trick?

In a world where nothing comes for free, we’ve gotten used to seeing everything as a transaction, even acts of kindness. ‘One good deed deserves another’, the proverb says. Come to think of it, a version more reflective of today’s many working environments would be ‘I scratch your back and you scratch mine’. 

There is nothing wrong with building alliances at work to ensure you’ve got people who can have your back, nor for that matter with returning a favour if you get a chance to. It’s the silently attached expectation what has in many cases eroded the nature of a good deed itself. Ultimately, people end up feeling more stressed by being in debt over a favour, than relieved by the support received. And because they cannot openly talk about it, they fake it. You are left with a house of cards – beautiful on the outside, yet very unstable and risking a total collapse at every minor shift.   

How to harness the power of gratitude then, for the benefit of an organization? 

The answer is by shifting the focus from paying it back to instead paying it forward. What if it was no longer, ‘I scratch your back and you scratch mine’ but rather ‘I scratch your back and you scratch someone else’s’? Paying it forward is all about passing on the good deeds, just not necessarily to the person that you have received one from. Building your organizational culture on the premise of generalized reciprocity (vs direct reciprocity when you pay it back) is extremely helpful in creating the social glue that makes organisations stick together and succeed. It also builds a natural matrix-style organization where people interact more across departments or teams, thus driving creativity and strengthening the organisation’s shared knowledge. While the concept of paying it forward is not a new one, it still is not commonly used in organisations. And it could. To the benefit of all. 

How does it work? It goes back to genuine gratitude. When people receive spontaneous support without the expected “return on investment” attached to it, they not only feel grateful, but they are also more inclined to help a third party, spontaneously. This is how a positive deed chain reaction can start. This is also how, ultimately, a more sustainable organizational culture can be created, where giving is not about building one’s professional brand or collecting future favours, it’s about the nature you instill amongst the team members. The success is a collective one, and it’s in making sure that every team member feels safe and sure that there is a support system in place. Individuals feel free to experiment, get creative, more committed and, overall, more successful in what they do. The organisation additionally benefits by becoming less dependent on single individuals, risking to lose the drive or half of the organizational knowledge is one or two employees leave.  

As Adam Grant argues in his book “Give and Take”, givers are often overlooked and yet they are the ones that succeed in ways that lift others up.

Anna Koj is a Managing Partner of Akronos Consulting –a boutique consultancy in Brussels, VP Partnerships at Professional Women International Brussels (PWI Brussels), and recruitment and leadership Consultant at EARS – European A airs Recruitment Specialists. She helps individual clients to thrive by aligning their personal and professional vision and organisations to identify the best talent. She specialises in strategic communications, institutional relations and organisational leadership.

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