No, You Don’t Owe Me A Favor


Like many, I am a really big fan of Adam Grant.

Below are his words and they are so spot on!


When I learned that a colleague was struggling with grief after losing a parent, I offered to introduce her to an excellent bereavement therapist. Several months later, my colleague sent me a beautiful note about how much she appreciated the connection. I was thrilled to hear that the therapist had been helpful. But there was one sentence at the end of the note that didn’t sit right with me.

Her closing line was ‘I owe you one.’

It’s a message I see regularly when I try to help someone. From a quick search of my recent emails:

A student after I submitted a recommendation letter: ‘I owe you!!’

A colleague after I gave some feedback: ‘I’m in your debt!’

An author after I wrote a book endorsement: ‘I owe you a favor.’

Although I appreciate the gesture, I’m not The Godfather! My help doesn’t come with strings attached. If I take the time to do something for you, it’s not because I’m a matcher looking for something in return. It’s because I aspire to be a giver—I enjoy being helpful. My effort to support you means that I think highly of you and might even care about you. When you say you owe me, it reduces my investment in you to an accounting transaction.

So why is this phrase so common?

Many people are probably just following the norm of reciprocity—a tendency to match favors evenly that exists in most cultures around the globe. But some of the people saying ‘I owe you’ are among the most generous givers I know. And that makes them uncomfortable accepting generosity from someone else. They don’t want to be a burden. They prefer to be on the giving end of every exchange, and they’re afraid of being takers.

They’re failing to recognize the difference between taking and receiving. Taking is using someone for personal gain. Receiving is accepting help with the understanding that benefits you more than it costs the other person (or even benefits them too).

I know receiving is especially hard for women. We still live in a world that pressures women to be caring and communal—just not at home, but at work too. It’s hard enough to accept a compliment, let alone a gesture of compassion.

Instead of feeling guilty, when someone helps you, your only obligation is to be grateful.

Expressing appreciation doesn’t just make givers feel good—it also motivates them to keep doing good. It allows them to feel valued and shows them their time was well spent.

Generosity is not a loan to repay or a debt to settle. It’s a gift to appreciate.

Yes, you can reciprocate a favor by paying it back.

But the best way to honor an act of kindness is by paying it forward.”