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How to build business relationships using the Benjamin Franklin effect

When I left school, I worked as a shop assistant for a company that was struggling to stay afloat. The owner, an imposing but respected figure, whose mass of hair seemed incongruous to his immaculate suit, never stood still for long enough to talk to his staff and always seemed a little unapproachable. One day, to my surprise, he took me into his office and personally asked for my help in supporting him in the shop through a difficult time.

Before he asked me, I didn’t think much of him, but with this one small request, he turned me from an apathetic member of floor staff into a dedicated employee. I would have done anything to help him make a success of the store.

Many of us cringe at the idea of asking anyone for a favour, and most managers wouldn’t dream of asking staff, perhaps worrying that it will make them seem desperate. But why?

Is it because we worry that others will think us rude, presumptuous, needy or annoying if we ask for a favour? I didn’t think this of my boss – in fact I thought him humble, courageous and gracious and I liked and respected him so much more than I had before. This is known as the ‘Benjamin Franklin effect’.

Benjamin Franklin had a powerful adversary in Pennsylvania who took a dislike to him so Franklin asked the man if he could borrow a book from his library. The man was flattered and lent it. Franklin returned it one week later with a thank you note. The two remained firm friends from that day on. My manager knew how to build business relationships using the ‘Ben Franklin effect’; I liked him more because I was doing him a favour.

Psychologists tested the Ben Franklin effect in 1969. They figured that it works because of ‘cognitive dissonance’, where we find it difficult to reconcile doing someone a favour and disliking them, so we decide that we must like them. We feel more powerfully obligated to self-justify our behaviors, than to carry out a particular behaviour as a result of the thought.

But there’s more. It is thought that the desire to build bridges by the person asking for the favour, which we perceive to carry a high risk of rejection, means that the person asking must be very keen to be friends, that they respect or like us or are acknowledging our resources, skills or abilities.

This brings in another psychological phenomenon called the ‘liking’ effect. We all want to be liked. So much so, that we will go out of our way for someone who really likes us. Hence the reason car salesmen are super-friendly. They’re trying to show that they really like us so that we’ll buy a car from them. Franklin’s rival respected the risk that Franklin was taking by asking for the book, and took that as Franklin’s intention to build bridges, but he also, on some level, wanted to be liked, so he happily obliged in lending the book.

When Franklin asked his favour, he was also acknowledging that his rival had the resources that Franklin didn’t have. When my manager asked me, he was recognising that I had the skills to help him, he as putting me on an equal footing with him, which was very flattering and gave me a perceived sense of power.

How can you use this in your business?

If you’re a good businessman then you’ll already know that the success of your business comes from developing positive relationships with associates, employees, customers and investors; those who can help your business and buy your product or service.

Asking for help from these people has the effect of connecting with them and acknowledging that they have the means – whether it be the skills or the ability, or simply the like-ability – to help you. It will make them feel important to your business. It will make them feel empowered and they will be more loyal to you.

The important thing is, as Franklin writes in his autobiography, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” So, we are more likely to get people doing us favours, if they have already done so than someone who owes us a favour.

It might seem counterintuitive to ask for assistance or favours from your employees, clients and business associates but to do so, in a personal way, will make them feel empowered.

Start by personally asking small favours of staff and clients such as ‘Tell me what you think of this video/article/product.’ Or ‘Please leave a testimonial’. Do this and you will not only gain a loyal supporter of your business, but they will do you many more favours, thus doing more for building your business relationships than you thought possible.



Image Credit: Ben Franklin Steamboat Springs by David_Jones