5-minute favor: should teams schedule altruism?

Last updated on 
October 16, 2020

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We all want to think we’re decent people. We like to help others, to feel generous, to believe we’re having a positive impact on the world. It’s nice to be nice – and many of us are already used to doing selfless things for our friends and family. But should we also be doing them for our coworkers? There are many who believe that we should incorporate altruism into our daily working routine in the same ways as we schedule a meeting or a coffee break. They call this the “five-minute favor” – but is this something we really need to schedule? Or have modern ways of working made it necessary to turn being kind into a task?

What is the five minute favor?

The five-minute favor is the brainchild of entrepreneur Adam Rifkin, a man who Fortune described as the “best networker… who takes connecting to a whole new level.” Part of Rifkin’s success is due to the fact that he has so many connections and contacts – and the reason he forged these meaningful connections is because he took time to practice intentional altruism. When Rifkin first moved to Silicon Valley he was inspired by seeing powerful people do favors for other people  – even though it didn’t benefit them. It didn’t cost them much, but it could make a huge difference in someone else’s life – and, as Rifkin observed, the people who made these kind gestures almost always seemed happy themselves.

While the gesture itself may be altruistic, and while the person being kind may not expect anything in return, the benefits of these small acts of kindness can still be significant. On a personal level, it feels good to be kind to people and to help others. Helping people has been shown to increase the chances of success and, because there’s an innate joy in connecting with others, it’s also been shown to help combat loneliness. But on a more long-term level, helping someone at work – even for five minutes – can strengthen your relationship and add meaning to a dynamic that was previously strictly professional.

If you’re part of a team, you’ll probably spend most of your days with your coworkers. Even if you work remotely, a large part of your week will be spent communicating with coworkers and ensuring you’re all on the same page. A connection already exists – and studies suggest that helping a person you’re socially connected to fosters more emotional benefits than helping a stranger. So building small selfless acts into your day doesn’t only reinforce work relationships, but can also give you a psychological boost and enhance your sense of worth. It acts as a mindfulness exercise too, where your brain has a chance to switch gears. These things have a knock-on effect on productivity and engagement, so the benefits you might see following your kind acts may be greater than you think.

Not a shortcut, not a substitute

All this sounds good... and it is. But if we begin encouraging teams to start scheduling altruism into their day – whether by taking the time to make a mutually-beneficial connection between two people, or by offering valuable feedback – we need to be mindful of a few things. While it feels good to be kind, the cathartic instant hit of doing a small “good deed” shouldn’t distract from a company’s wider corporate responsibilities. If a manager takes five minutes to help out a coworker, it doesn’t remove or minimize their obligation to provide encouragement and feedbackm and offer support on a more long-term and general basis. A five minute favor isn’t a substitute for personalized support.

In our present climate of uncertainty, more companies are looking to redefine their social contract with employees and their community. Many of us want to move away from the simplistic and hierarchical idea of “employer” and “employee”, or the sense that someone is working “for” another person. Having meaning at work has never been more important, and we want to forge working relationships that are more human-centric, to feel as though we’re all part of a unified team working towards the same vision and the same goals. We want to feel like people care about our wellbeing not only because we can deliver a valuable service, but because they care about us – as a person.

It’s important to remember that there are no shortcuts to this – least of all shortcuts that only take five minutes. Ensuring employees feel seen, appreciated and included – especially if they work remotely – is something that takes time and effort, and must be built into all aspects of a company’s work culture and policy. So it’s fine to treat the five-minute favor as a mindfulness exercise, but we should remember that care, empathy and support require time. Condensing or trivialising acts of humanity, or approaching them as another to-do list transaction, just defeats the whole point.

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