How You Treat Others When You Need Something vs When You Don't

Anyone who knows me, knows that I like to talk. I'm a "call my cell" type of guy, and so I often find myself on calls with complete strangers or people I've just met. I get my interest in people from my Dad, who can barge into any gym, restaurant or public setting and startup a conversation with a complete stranger. He's immune to the weird societal taboo we have with talking to strangers, and he's just genuinely interested in meeting people and connecting.

I get some of that from him and it comes to me most often when I get requests on LinkedIn or email asking for time to chat. Unfortunately, my time in sales has made me fairly ruthless in ignoring terrible sales emails, but geniune people, looking for genuine help or advice? Sure. I'm almost always game. (although when people start to abuse it, I redirect them to my consulting site to pay for time with surprising success).

For a long part of my career, I have been a position where I have a lot to give to others - knowledge, client information, market and ecosystem intel, strategy advice, a digital rolodex. But as I've been taking my time over the last few months to recharge and rejuvinate in a mini sabbatical, my utility has also taken a back seat. And as I've now found myself in the position of emailing and LinkedIn'ing friends and sometimes random strangers for advice and counsel, I've realized two important things worth sharing:

1) How people treat you when they need something is almost always not the same as how they treat you when they don't need something. It's important to be aware of this so you're not tricked into thinking that because you got something once, or were treated a certain way by a person once, that that will extend into the future. And this isn't a generalized snipe at anyone. I've been guilty of this. We've all been guilty of this. We tend to change our behaviors when we need things. It's just human nature. New recruit who you want to win over? You'll drop everything you're doing. Help with a customer you're trying to sell? You'll give them your cellphone. Advice on how to tackle a difficult technical problem? I'll clear my calendar.

There's nothing shameful in this either. Smart people realize that you have to be flexible and accommodating in times where somebody else has leverage and you need or want something from that person. We all put on our best act to get ahead.

But eventually, one of those people who helped you will come knocking and ask YOU for help. And you might not need anything from them, or owe them a dang thing. And that's a second thing I've realized:

2) How people treat you when they need nothing from you is an important proxy for their character, team and company.

Its human nature to act sweet when you need something. But it takes self-awareness, humility, generosity, and genuine interest in serving others to act the same when you owe somebody nothing.

It's for this reason that I find #2 a great proxy for evaluating a person's character, and by association what it would feel like be on their team, or "play for their company".

Now, there are a lot of caveats and asterisks here. I also believe in ruthless prioritization of time, and sometimes we have to be selfish and ignore folks temporarily simply because there's not enough time in the day, or helping them would require more effort than the outcome. In these cases, I try to just tell people I'm not going to be able to help them for a few months and I try to set an explicit day to circle back, since in the future, I may have enough time to be more helpful to them.

Similarly, there are lots of "abusers" who keep asking for things without ever trying to return the favor. Relationships are two way streets after all, and people are more likely to help you when they owe you nothing if you help them first. We tend to feel guilt and want to return favors when a favor has been given (unless you're a narcissist).

So what should you do if you want to help people but acknowledge that sometimes you don't have the time? A lot of people practice the "ignore until they go away" policy, which is function of this obsession around "not burning bridges". I think this is cowardly. Anyone who thinks they'll burn a bridge because they respond with bad news to somebody hasn't figured out that good people - the people worth staying in touch with and learning and growing from - are not this sensitive and shallow.

Similarly, nothing ever good comes from leaving somebody hanging. It creates a vacuum where they get to assume for all the wrong reasons why you didn't respond.

Instead, I prefer to control the narrative and let people know immediately if I can't help them. In the long run its better for them and for you.

For example, recently I've been looking at lots of interesting roles with startups. Some co-founders I talk to will tell me right then and there or shortly after the call that my services or skill-set isn't needed. It's great. It allows me to focus my time. I know exactly where I stand. And I leave our conversation feeling like I can trust the person to be honest with me.

As another example, I've also been strung along by co-founders and executives, sometimes for weeks without a clear answer. And most of us (myself included) quickly jump to conclusions like...

  • Wow. They must really not have liked me so much that they didn't even respond.
  • They must be so busy (or disorganized) that they can't even attend to others with care.
  • Ooof. They must be so far up their own asses that they don't think its important to respond to people.

In reality, the person was probably busy taking care of a sick family member, or was waiste deep in a prodcut launch, and was stressed out by their inbox overflowing. Wouldn't it just be easier to be honest in those cases? by not responding to people you sacrifice temporary relief for future karma.

No matter how you slice it. There's really not many good outcomes from ignoring people, unless they are harassing you by text or something immature and insane like that.

So, think about how people treat you. Treat people with dignity and respect, even if you owe them nothing. Try to help others as much as you can, and when you can't just be honest. Being honest only burns bridges if the person on the other side of the bridge is watching with a torch in hand.