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Harness the Ben Franklin Effect, Boost Your Career

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Antar Dayal via Getty Images
Antar Dayal via Getty Images

You may know a lot about Benjamin Franklin -- for example, that he invented bifocals, graces the $100 bill, and was born on January 17 -- but you've likely never heard of the Ben Franklin Effect. It's a concept from social psychology which, when properly applied, can strengthen your sales performance, career progression, and even your job search.

The Ben Franklin Effect is named after an anecdote Franklin recounted from his early political days. In 1737, while running for reappointment as Clerk in Philadelphia's General Assembly, a wealthy and influential new member passionately argued (unsuccessfully) for a different candidate. Franklin wanted this new member's advocacy for himself, so, upon learning that the new member possessed a rare book collection, Franklin asked to borrow one of his most valuable books. The new member obliged, and Franklin read and returned the book a week later with a note acknowledging the favor, but nothing else.

Upon seeing each other at the next meeting, the new member initiated a conversation with Franklin for the first time and offered his assistance on any future occasion. He honored this promise until his death, prompting Franklin to acknowledge the truth of an old maxim he had heard: "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged." In social psychology, this concept is now called the Ben Franklin Effect.

In sales, the Ben Franklin Effect can be used to build rapport with a desired client. When the traditional approach of offering service or assistance isn't successful, consider changing gears. Ask your contacts for assistance instead. For example, ask them to share with you what product benefits they find most compelling, where they think the market is headed, or what products may be of interest several years from now. This pure favor, left unrepaid, can build likability that will enhance your ability to earn that client's time and investment in the future.

In our careers, successful professionals tend to take on mentors for guidance. Small tokens of gratitude are welcome, particularly around the holidays, but avoid the temptation of tit-for-tat compensation. Mentorships are defined by their fundamental imbalance of knowledge and influence. Attempting to proactively reciprocate favors with a mentor can backfire, as the role reversal and unsolicited assistance may put your mentor in an unexpected, awkward situation. (Note that this awkwardness is absent when a mentor requests assistance directly, as the role reversal in that case has been invited).

In the job search, conventional wisdom has long been to repay favors. For example, if someone agrees to speak to you for an informational interview, you might send them a gift in thanks or email them articles they'd find relevant for their work; however, this turns the encounter into a transaction. Few things are as valuable as job search assistance in a difficult economy, but sending a token gift to a helpful contact may, for example, give them the impression that you consider that gift similar in value to their assistance. Similarly, a grand gesture could be perceived as attempted bribery. If a contact is interested in advocating on your behalf, a token gift or e-mailed article is unlikely to increase the intensity of their advocacy. Relying on social norms is both easier and more effective.

Companies are accustomed to taking on debt in order to reap greater returns. This same approach can yield similar outcomes when applied to the social aspects of our professional lives as well. As Ben Franklin confirmed hundreds of years ago, sometimes the best payback is no payback at all.

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Steve Dalton is a senior career consultant at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and author of 'The 2-Hour Job Search.'