There is a Difference between Generosity and Weakness.

A couple of years ago I was working with a CEO at a start-up company. I’d routinely hold the door for her as we entered and exited office buildings where we were doing business. One day she stopped me and said, “I don’t want you ever to hold a door open for me again. It shows weakness, and positions you as a subordinate.” She was trying to teach me corporate pecking-order, while I was trying to be polite.

And recently, I was working with another CEO, and providing counsel and advice well-beyond my required contract. He was asking for my help, and I was happy to give it. I was trying to be generous of spirit, and trying to help him in his business. Then, suddenly, he started to take advantage of my generosity, with significantly delayed payments, and extending the assignment well beyond the final deliverables. He mistook my generosity for weakness.

In both cases I was trying to show my true colors—a desire to help others, and provide customer service to my clients. They both saw my behavior as weakness. Those who know me well know that that’s a trait not embedded in my DNA. I don’t suffer fools easily, nor do I roll-over if I feel disrespected.

I’ve learned, over the years, to know the difference between generosity and weakness, and to make sure that I know when others see my generosity as something to take advantage of. It’s quite an empowering feeling, to give without giving away my power.

If you’re interested in being generous-of-spirit without being weak, here are five lessons I have learned. You’ll note that they are all about actions and feelings that you have—not about teaching others to behave the way you want them to.

  1. Know your limits. If you feel you’ve given too much away, you have. Draw your line in the sand between offering help, and being taken advantage of. It is all about your perception of the situation. 
  2. Don’t expect others will return in kind. Generosity does not necessarily immediately beget generosity. While I believe that putting goodness out into the world will boomerang back to you, generosity doesn’t necessarily deliver a direct and immediate reciprocal response.
  3. If you believe that giving is a strength, it is. It doesn’t matter what others think.
  4. Keep ego out of it. Ego has no place in generosity.
  5. Understand your true intentions when you “give it away.” If you’re truly generous in spirit, you’re doing it to help others, not to make yourself feel good.
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