Gifts vs. Favors: Why One is POWER & Other is POISON to Your Career

by O'Donnell, J.T. Sunday, February 14, 2010
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I read a post by Seth Godin recently that discussed the power of a gift. Something struck me immediately: People who struggle to find professional satisfaction (a.k.a. a job they are happy with) are often guilty of doing favors instead of giving gifts. If you’ve ever said the following, then you are guilty too:

- I can’t believe they didn’t give me a promotion after all that extra work I did without asking.
- I’ll call that guy and get him to cut me a deal – he owes me.
- I’m going to surprise my boss by finishing the project early – she’ll love me for it.

FACT: Gifts & Favors BOTH Create Imbalances in a Relationship, BUT Get Resolved Differently

Let’s be honest: We are all guilty of claiming to give someone a gift in the form of our time, energy, expertise, money, etc., but really did it with the secret expectation of getting an invisible “IOU” in return. That’s not a gift, it’s a favor. Gifts, when given properly, are given freely – no strings attached.

Here’s Where it Gets Really Interesting...

The article I read by Seth Godin shares an ancient practice by Native Americans that acknowledges the power of a true giver:

“In the Pacific Northwest a powerful chief would engage in potlatch, giving away everything he owned as a sign of his wealth and power. Since he had more to give away, and the power to get more, the gifts carried real power, and others had to accept his power in order to engage.”

There’s the difference between a satisfied professional and miserable one – one believes they have power, the other doesn’t.

Successful workers understand they have the power to keep themselves happy and employable. They’ve learned the secret to professional satisfaction is to create a career that is authentic and impresses themselves, not someone else. This is one of the most powerful things you can achieve in life. Imagine being in a place of such confidence and peace that you have no problem giving away your ideas, time, money and resources to others, while expecting nothing in return but the feel-good factor that you have the power to help.

The More Favors We Do = More Cynical We Become (Poison Apple Theory)

When we focus on the WIIFM of our favors (What’s In It For ME), we become frustrated when we don’t see what we view as an equal return on the investment. Here’s an example...

I recently met a woman who has been unemployed for 14 months. To say she was bitter about her situation would be an understatement. She wanted immediate advice from me on how to improve her resume. I couldn’t give that advice until I gained some insight into her work history and her job search tactics. She said to me, “I’ve tried everything the ‘so-called experts’ say to do.” She said it as if she did my peers a favor for trying out their advice and, when they didn’t work the ways she wanted, she felt slighted. I then asked if she had been networking much with past co-workers. Her response was, “No. There’s no point. I worked like crazy for all those folks and they never appreciated me. I don’t like any of them and would never want to work with them again, so why would I network with them?” Again, she spent years doing favors and clearly didn’t feel like she got the return on her investment from her co-workers and managers. At this point, I simply told her I could not help her and she might want to try another career coach. After years of career advising, I can spot a no-win situation a mile away.

What Should You Give? Share Your Go-to Potential & Find the Power of Professional Satisfaction

When we look at our professional strengths as gifts to be given away freely, we create something powerful in ourselves – a confidence that says, “I can help you because I am strong and knowledgeable.” For example, anyone can do a good job, but when you give the gift of doing an amazing job without expectation of anything in return, you do it freely with an attitude that says, “You need me to show you what’s possible.” That is powerful. Trust me, companies LOVE powerful employees.

NOTE: You Can’t Fake Gift Giving

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Okay, so I do favors, but I am so nice, I make it look like I’m giving gifts.” You are wrong. Communication goes far beyond words. Body language, facial expressions, hand gestures, and follow-up actions all play a role in telling the person whether you are giving a gift or a favor. No matter how hard you try to fake it, people know the difference between a gift and a favor.

So, What Gift Will YOU Give Today?

To prove my point, I want everyone who reads this post to think about a gift they can give today. After you give it, sit back and see how you feel. If you feel happy, peaceful and excited, you truly gave. If you feel cynical or drained, you did a favor. Then, share your experience below with fellow readers, especially, those of you who felt the power of true giving. From there, ask yourself the following:

What can I give MORE of on-the-job?

How can I give MORE to my professional community?


If you are currently unemployed, I say, all the more reason you need to start giving gifts. Who could use your help right now for free? Who needs your power? Start to give it away freely and see what happens. There is something magnetic about a person who radiates strength. So, why not start giving more of yourself as a way to show your personal power? Can you volunteer someplace, or offer your services for free? What can you do to show your confidence as a person with something to give?

Finally, the BEST Part! You Control Who is Worthy of Your Gift

When you realize giving in this fashion will only serve to enhance your professional satisfaction, you will become addicted to gift giving. Trust me. I spent 11 years doing favors until I learned gifts were the way to go! Most importantly, I also learned I got to choose who deserved my gifts. That’s right. Just because I said give gifts freely doesn’t mean I meant to everyone. We should only gift gifts to those we know will use them wisely. Here’s a great example that happened to me recently...

A former co-worker I keep in touch with doesn’t like his job much. Last week, I mentioned in a discussion with him and several others some career coaching I was doing to help out a group of folks who have been out of work for awhile. I was very excited about their progress. They had joined our CAREEREALISM Club and I was providing them with private coaching beyond what was included in the $75 annual membership. Yet, their change in attitude and their gratitude for getting this coaching had made me so happy; it was worth my time to do it. His comment to me, “You are too nice. You give too much away.” A day later, another colleague who is very unhappy in his career and who had been part of that same conversation called me and said, “I want to make a career change. I can’t take it anymore. When I think of someone who currently demonstrates the way I want to feel about my job, I thought of you talking about your work last week.” Guess which one I’m career coaching for free?