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Every compliance officer’s toolbox needs the ‘Ben Franklin effect’

America’s first blogger, Ben Franklin, wrote in his 1791 autobiography that if you want someone to like you more, ask them for a favor.

He field-tested his idea on a political adversary who wouldn’t speak to him. Ben wrote to his adversary, asking to borrow a rare and valuable book from his library. Surprisingly, the man delivered the book, which Franklin returned a few days later with a note of elaborate thanks.

The next time they met, the man not only spoke to Franklin “with great civility,” but after that always tried to be helpful, “so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

Need more proof?

In 1969, American researchers Jon Jecker and David Landy confirmed Franklin’s thesis. Their experiments showed that liking a person is a function of doing them a favor. The liking increases as the favor becomes bigger and more personal.

The reason for the “Ben Franklin effect,” as it became known, is hazy. Some psychologists attribute it to cognitive dissonance. We can’t justify disliking someone we’ve just helped and who has shown gratitude for the help.

What’s the local application? Compliance professionals are gatekeepers. They’re guaranteed to upset a lot of people along the way. A few of those people will even become haters. Why not deploy the Ben Franklin effect? See what happens.

Is it manipulative to ask for a favor you don’t need? A little. But as Franklin discovered, his little manipulation produced a lifelong friendship. What a rich payoff.

Here’s a thought. Why wait for someone to dislike you? Why not ask for help anytime you need it?

Ahh, that’s a problem. No one wants to look dumb/weak/confused. And anyway, what if the answer is, “Go stuff yourself”? Who needs the rejection?

But here’s more good news. People are twice as likely to help us than we think. Literally.

In 2008, Prof Francis Flynn of Stanford’s graduate business school, and Vanessa Lake, a Columbia psychology PhD student, ran two studies. First, they asked participants to estimate how many strangers they’d need to ask in order to borrow a cell phone. Next, they told participants to ask strangers for help finding a campus gym by walking with them at least two blocks toward the gym.

Flynn and Lake found that participants “consistently overestimated by 50 percent the number of people they’d have to ask to get a certain number to agree with each request.”

Lake said, “Participants were initially horrified at the prospect of going out and asking people for such things. But they’d bound back into the lab afterward with big smiles, saying, ‘I can’t believe how nice people were!’”

Hey, it’s as though the strangers instantly liked the people they just helped. Isn’t that, well, very Franklinesque?

Steve Jobs got it. In a 1985 interview he said, “I’ve never found anybody that didn’t want to help me if I asked them for help.” (My italics.)

When Jobs was just 12, he cold-called Bill Hewlett (founder of Hewlett Packard) to ask for free electronic parts. What happened next is really where the Apple story begins. (See the 52-second clip below.)

The lesson for compliance professionals is this: Make it a habit to ASK FOR HELP and thank those who help you. Your life and work will be forever richer.


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