Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the author of the best-selling book Give and Take, offers insights and parameters for being a good (but not too good) workplace comrade.

By Catherine Halley
Updated May 17, 2016
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Gift on a filing cabinet
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Gift on a filing cabinet
Credit: Vstock LLC/Getty Images

Adapt the Ask

When someone requests a favor, don’t assume that your only options are to answer yes or no. There’s a lot in between. Tailor your response so you can “align your favors with your specific skills,” says Grant. This requires some advance work, but you have to do it only once. “Come up with one or two ways of giving that you enjoy and excel at,” says Grant. Chatting on the phone? Sure. Responding to a written document? Maybe. When a colleague, a job seeker, or a friend of a friend asks for something that feels overwhelming, set boundaries on what you’re willing to give. For example, you might say, “I won’t have time for coffee and a brainstorm, but I’m happy to look at the proposal once it’s written.”

Stick With Five-Minute Favors

If you have a tendency to overdo, this policy could save you. “Many people think of giving as a really time-consuming effort, but you don’t have to spend hours and hours on every person you want to help,” says Grant. You can have a big impact “making micro loans of time, skills, and connections,” he says. When someone comes to you for help, offer to answer a specific question or make a strategic introduction. Implement a comfortable technique for putting a cap on a favor-based e-mail exchange. (Signing off with “Good luck!” might work for you.) You are responsible for keeping your eye on that clock, though. No one is going to protect your time but you.

Say No Sometimes

Grant encourages setting boundaries about whom you help—because if you’re a “giver,” you’re going to attract not only good folks who deserve your kindness but also selfish “takers” who will abuse it. Says Grant: “Takers almost have a homing instinct. They immediately say, ‘Ah, there’s a giver—I must exploit her!’ ” If someone doesn’t seem genuine, trust your gut and beg off.