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Faculty & Research


When Brokers Don’t Broker: Mitigating Referral Aversion in Third-Party Help Exchange

Journal Article
Help exchange - whether for technical solutions, career advice, socioemotional support, or scarce resources - constitutes the very fabric of productive organizational life. Yet, a growing body of research has documented various ways in which help requesters and requestees misperceive each other, undermining their chances of giving and receiving help. So far, this line of research has focused on dyadic exchange and paid limited attention to triadic exchange involving third parties. To close this gap, the present research examines misperceptions that hinder requestees from offering referrals to potentially more willing or capable third parties. Six preregistered experiments (n = 2863) demonstrate what the authors term referral aversion, stemming from concerns about what offering unsolicited referrals instead of direct help might signal to requesters. Because of referral aversion, requestees overestimate how negatively requesters will react to unsolicited referrals versus (solicited or unsolicited) direct help. The authors also propose a simple intervention to mitigate referral aversion: making a generalized rather than personalized help request (i.e., asking for help from “you or someone you know” rather than “you”). In a field experiment (n = 541), participants who made generalized help requests to peers on a problem-solving task received higher quality help from both requestees and third parties, suggesting that seeking third-party help can promote help exchange in multiple ways. Altogether, these studies draw critical attention to the growing recognition that the process of reaching and connecting third parties is hardly automatic or frictionless and open new lines of inquiry on how to promote third party help exchange.

Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour