Understanding Reciprocity: Essential for Success in Business and Life

“Pay every debt, as if God wrote the bill.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Behavioral scientists have conducted extensive study of the “norm of reciprocity,” a social convention that governs exchanges between human beings. Its importance in various business functions (sales, leadership, teamwork, and bargaining) is often underestimated. Its workings are often subtle and nuanced, but its power cannot be overstated. It deserves our utmost respect and understanding.

While we all know that “business is all about relationships,” it’s quite another matter to translate all that’s implied in this simple statement into practical action. As is the case with most sound bites, this one leaves an awful lot unsaid. And crucial to success in business is, understanding how functional relationships are cultivated, grown, and sustained.

Reciprocity is the key

One way to do so is to develop a more conscious awareness of the forces that break down barriers between people and grease the wheels of social interaction. A number of such forces stem from a very powerful social norm that regulates human interchanges— the norm of reciprocity. 

Reciprocity refers to the social convention of returning, in kind, what we receive from others and expecting others to respond similarly in regard to us. More often than not, it’s associated with many of the good things that go on between people— there are, however exceptions, discussed below.

Operating in tandem with the norm of reciprocity is the biblical Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Behavioral science aside, what we’re talking about here are timeless principles that reliably govern the exchanges that go on between people.

Reciprocity and antisocial behavior

Reciprocity is not all sweetness and light. It also underlies the escalation of mistrust and aggression. If we cheat or otherwise do harm to others, we shouldn’t be surprised if they retaliate in some form or other. At the very least, we can expect to lose their trust and develop a bad reputation.

Negative results also accrue if we simply refuse to reciprocate the favors that others do for us. Derogatory terms such as “moocher” or “welcher” are often applied to persons who become known for neglecting the norm by not returning favors or paying off debts.

We’re not talking about rocket science here— the old rule, “what goes around, comes around” is timeless and not difficult to understand. And yet we consistently see people who seem incapable of putting this social norm to constructive use in their social lives and their business dealings.

The “me generation”

Despite the obvious value of cultivating positive relationships based on reciprocity, the norm is the not only force operating in our complex social world. It’s also well documented that people are becoming increasingly insensitive and self centered, a trend that neutralizes many of the positive potentials associated with reciprocity.

As unpleasant as it is to think about, conceit, egocentrism, and insensitivity toward others are becoming increasingly commonplace among people of all ages. And in a society dependent upon reciprocity for civility and order, this is bad news.

Reciprocity vs. arrogance

Failures to treat others as we’d like to be treated are generally interpreted as arrogance— and one of the worst things that one can do is to brand oneself as arrogant.  The social consequences can be devastating to both business and causal relationships.  And yet we constantly encounter individuals who exemplify this dysfunctional pattern.

We’ve all crossed paths with individuals who are authoritarian, pushy, and outright rude in their dealings with others. Such persons try to have their way with others by “steamrolling” them, assuming that most people are either too polite to react back or are perhaps low in self-esteem.

Applications to sales

Pushy and overbearing salespeople are among the scourges of the business world. Such individuals assume that they can overpower us with trick sales tactics, caring little about our needs.

Often insulting our intelligence, salespeople who ignore the norm of reciprocity blunder about offending potential buyers and giving all salespeople a bad name. If such characters acknowledge the norm at all, it’s usually in the form of trying to create the illusion that they’re doing us favors by tossing us scraps, such as phony compliments or valueless trinkets.

The best salespeople are those who do have a good sense of the importance of reciprocity. Rather than trying to hoodwink others, they seek to understand their needs, speak honestly, and deal fairly. In doing so, they cultivate the most valuable commodity in business— long-term relationships.   

“Toxic bosses”

Virtually everyone I know has had the misfortune of having to deal with persons in positions of power who lack empathy and try get what they want from others through bullying. Such individuals ignore the norm of reciprocity, and in organizations, the results are workplaces that are less productive than they could be.

Often referred to as “toxic bosses,” such individuals get what they want from others in the short run, but the tactics they use are self-defeating in the long run. Their abusive approaches undermine morale and generate grumbling and complaining behind their backs.

In “throwing their weight around,” they fill work environments with static that distracts from whatever mission is to be accomplished. Despite all that is known about effective leadership, toxic bosses abound, causing themselves and their workplaces as many problems as they solve.

“When the cat’s away…”

The self-defeating quality of this approach to supervision undermines work motivation, and the results are rather ironic. In trying to get more out of people by “cracking the whip,” arrogant bosses get less— by creating situations in which employees won’t work hard unless they’re being watched or actively pushed. As is often said, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

Unfortunately, “Captain Bligh” is alive and well in many 21st Century workplaces— much to the detriment of the productivity and profit margins of those organizations in which they operate.

Reciprocity and teamwork

Among equals, trust and respect are cornerstones of effective teamwork. In today’s competitive economic environment, mistrust and disunity among coworkers are far too costly to allow either of these to fester for any length of time. 

Given that both positive and negative behaviors tend to be reciprocated, allowing disunity to go unaddressed is a formula for escalation. I’ve seen many an organization suffer in this regard, and even some to go out of business altogether because of animosities that were not dealt with effectively.

Fostering mutual trust

A lot of corporate training programs aimed at teambuilding yield less than optimal results. One reason for these failures is that many organizations fall prey to an ever-changing array of fashionable, jargon-laced interventions rather than relying on timeless principles that don’t change with the seasons. For whatever reasons, “the latest and the greatest” seem preferable to “the tried and true.”

Interdependency and mutual trust are rooted in understanding two basics: (1) A conscious awareness of the importance of reciprocity in social relations; and (2) a constant focus on overarching corporate strategy and common goals. Again, we’re not talking rocket science here— all the complicated jargon in the world will not change human nature. 

While the means of keeping coworkers in touch with these basics does need to vary over time, the actual content of corporate training must include these two crucial components.

Reciprocity: Subtleties and nuances

Let’s take a look at some additional aspects of the norm of reciprocity that make it worth our while to understand in more than a cursory way. Given its importance, it’s well worth the effort to look deeper into its workings.

Small favors can bring big returns

Research shows that the sizes of the favors involved in reciprocal exchanges can be quite unequal in their objective value. Initial favors that appear to be quite trivial on the surface have been shown to generate returns that are several times the value of the original courtesy. In workplaces, simply being civil and considerate can sometimes earn the undying loyalty of one’s associates.

Let’s go back to those toxic bosses discussed earlier. Many of them would find that they’d be much more effective leaders if they could find it in themselves to develop some compassion. A little kindness can go a long way— most of us will “give our all” for bosses who acknowledge and respond to our human needs in no more than reasonable ways.

Bargaining and reciprocal concessions

Bargaining and conflict resolution often involve reciprocity in disguise. In these domains, it typically takes the form of “asking for more, but then settling for less.”  Backing off from an initial large request and then making a smaller one is itself a subtle form of giving, implying that one’s counterpart should reciprocate.

Experienced negotiators never— repeat, never expect their initial offers to be accepted by the parties with whom they negotiate. They start with offers too large to be accepted by their counterparts and then subsequently retreat to successively smaller and more acceptable demands.

It’s an art, not a science. Demands that are too extreme suggest that negotiators are not bargaining in good faith, and those that are too small leave them no room from which to pressure for further concessions. Reciprocity, therefore, underlies that all important conflict resolution tool that we call compromise.

The importance of understanding the norm of reciprocity and its manifestations in business and casual social relationships cannot be overstated. If we’re more civil and compassionate toward others, we’ll be better people ourselves, but we’ll also bring out more of those tendencies in those with whom we interact.  Civility and compassion, like colds, can be catching. And in an increasingly cold and calloused world, anything that any of us can do to spread civility and compassion will help.

Dr. Richardson is the founder of Redwood Enterprises, a business consulting, training, and executive coaching firm that specializes in helping business owners make sure that what they do every day reflects sound strategic planning. He is available for speaking engagements on business related topics. Visit his company’s website at www.redwood-enterprises.com, or contact Redwood Enterprises by phone at 610.326.3670.