Being of Service…or Doing a Favour?

 Seneca, the Roman philosopher once said, “Be silent as to services you have rendered, but speak of favours you have received”


It makes me think about what a fine distinction there is between being of service and doing a favour and how easy it is to confuse the two.

My husband is required to take blood thinners, nasty little toxic pills that must be constantly monitored to make sure they are doing their job…but without killing him in the process.  This means making frequent trips to the hospital for blood work.  On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like a big deal but because his stroke has made it difficult for him to get around, even the simplest things have become more onerous to accomplish than before.

On our last visit to the doctor, she made us aware of a service that would allow him to have his blood taken at home and asked if we would like her to arrange it.

“Yes, please!” we said.

A few weeks later, we received a telephone call from the Lab.  The conversation went something like this:

Lab Lady; “Hello, this the Lab calling to come and do your husband’s blood work.  We’ll be there tomorrow between 9:00 and 11:00.”

Me;  “ Thank you.  I’m checking my calendar now and, as it happens, we will be at home then.

Lab Lady;  “Good.  I’ll see you tomorrow. Bye”

The Lab technician was a perfectly pleasant woman (and probably a busy one as well) but I couldn’t help feeling annoyed somehow because she didn’t ask me if that particular ‘tomorrow’ or the time of the visit was in any way convenient for us.  And the tone of her voice was full of something that felt an awful lot like it might be coming from Lady Bountiful, like she was doing us a favour.

It could, of course, be that I was simply being over-sensitive but the experience left me wondering how many other organizations unwittingly dress their favours in the cloak of service.

To me, being of service is about others.  Doing a favour is about me.

As a leader I need to be clear about the difference in perspective each offers.   This kind of clarity is important because it affects how our employees, our customers, our colleagues and our communities respond to us.

If we are more inclined to doing favours (even if we call it service);

  • We will tend to view them as bankable transactions, keeping a mental record of how many and to whom;
  • We will have fairly specific expectations about the return for favours granted;
  • We will expect gratitude or even obligation. And, in so doing;
  • We will build on our personal sense of power.

If, on the other hand, we are truly service oriented we will use our organizational purpose as our guide.   In this way, we are better able;

  • To resist the temptation to make our acts of service feel like a burden to their recipients;
  • To give without considering the size or shape of the return;
  • To freely share our resources, our talents and our skills with each other and;
  • To count each act of service as a step closer to accomplishing our purpose, whatever it may be.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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6 Comments

Filed under building awareness, communication, Employee engagement, Servant Leadership, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Being of Service…or Doing a Favour?

  1. Great story (altho sorry to hear your husband and you have to deal with stroke and blood thinners) to make your point. I agree. Although my idea of a favor does not include reciprocity, your distinction is an important one. And as I write this I wonder if I was totally honest and accurate when I said favors for me don’t include reciprocity. I’ll have to reflect on that.

    At any rate I like what you wrote and think there are important points for a leader. Cherry

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Cherry, I love your honesty. While I also like to think that *my* favours do not come with a side order of expected reciprocity, I’m not always successful. I think it’s just human nature to view things, and do things, with ourselves in mind first. And, I don’t necessarily think that a bad thing either.
    It becomes questionable for me if I am already receiving compensation in some way (either monetary or another form of exchange) and *present* it as if I were doing a favour for which others should be grateful.
    Thanks for your usual candid comment which is always appreciated.

  3. I think this is brilliant, Gwyn. You’ve made an excellent and clear distinction between these two and I concur that we have to be mindful of our intentions as to whether our actions are being done to be of service to others or merely ourselves.

    I would add that making this distinction also allows us to value our interactions/collaborations with others because we’re not so much focused on what we much gain in the future as payback for our assistance, but instead on how our support has helped others to achieve certain goals/targets. Such a perspective allows us to have a more genuine sense of meaning and purpose behind our actions and support for others.

    On an aside, sorry to hear about your husband’s condition. While these moments can help us better appreciate the gift of good health, it’s also a reminder of how much time we really have, because we’re able to do so much more compared to when we have to commit our time and resources to these kinds of long-term care.

    Hopefully, through this service, the impact on you and your husband will be lessened.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Tanveer, Thanks for adding your voice here. I think you’re right. When we are clear about the lens we are looking through when providing service to others , we also become clear about what we want to get out of it…either something for *me* or something for something bigger than *me*. Perhaps, for some people anyway, the answer to that depends on what we will be rewarded for…which is a whole other blog post!
      Thanks too for your kind comments. 🙂

  4. Terry Thomas

    Hi Gwyn,

    Thank you for your helpful hints and insight into my work dilemma
    I don’t know that anything in my environment has changed, except for my perspective. I used to think that mentors were 100% supportive of me. Now I can see that their “constructive criticism” can benefit me, also. Now I am at the cross roads. Do I view the “critiques” as criticism and move on, or do I view it as “constructive” criticism and winds of change, and adjust my sails?

    Maybe my dilemma can shed some light on your situation. Historically, health care has been viewed as an occupation of service. Now facilities are trying to stay financially sound to stay in business, sometimes trying to
    “do more with less” or staff feels focused on the schedule, or computer, etc
    Many times our focus is on the “task” when it should be on the “client”.

    As you become more familiar with this new process and schedule, I hope you become more comfortable and develop a rapport with the person who is delivering the service, and is also doing a job that can be very stressful.

    Thank you for helping me reach out to others for support.
    I hope you find support as you reach out to others.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Those are two good questions, Terry. As you are no doubt aware, the answers are more likely to be in you than any other place. 🙂
      Thank you for your perspective on the the Health care scenario and for your kind words.

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