Leaders can apply the Rule of Reciprocity to create a culture of giving.
What is the Rule of Reciprocity?
I first learned about the Rule of Reciprocity and the enormous impact it can have on the way a person behaves from social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini.
In his book Influence, Dr. Cialdini spells out how this universal human behavior works. He says:
“The rule [of reciprocity] says that we should try to repay what another person has provided us. If a woman does us a favor, we should do her one in return; if a man sends us a birthday present, we should remember his birthday with a gift of our own; if a couple invites us to a party, we should be sure to invite them to one of ours. Reciprocated greeting cards, birthday gifts, and party invitations may seem like weak evidence of the rule’s force. Don’t be fooled; it can prompt change in sizable behaviors.”
I think about that rule often in my daily life and work. What’s most interesting to me about reciprocity is it works best when you give all the time, not only when you are in need of an immediate act of reciprocation.
Giving without expectation of receiving immediately acts as a flywheel for receiving at some later time. It’s like depositing into a virtual piggy bank that magically returns the favor, without you having to request a withdrawal.
You give today, and tomorrow when you need something, someone else will give back to you, even when you don’t ask.
How can you use reciprocity in the workplace?
At work, I apply the Rule of Reciprocity with what I like to refer to as my “magical candy-bowl”.
I’ve kept a candy bowl at my desk for the last twenty years. And while it hasn’t helped my figure, it has helped me do my job as a project leader.
My coworkers often visit my desk to take a snack from the candy bowl. It’s an excuse to get up from their desks, take a short break and connect with someone else. I love connecting with people in this way— people who get free candy tend to be nice to talk to in general.
But what also happens when my coworkers take the candy is that they internalize the idea that I’m someone who gives to them.
I also give of time and effort. If a person for work asks me for help, I give my support freely. If a coworker experiences a significant life event, I give by rallying teammates to support them.
I take these actions because I want to do them, not because I expect a return. And because of how I choose to act, I have a reputation of being giving.
Later, when I ask my coworkers to execute a task I need done quickly, I find they act with equal kindness to my project-related requests. They are amenable and hospitable in their responses back to me; They give even when I don’t have anything to offer them at that moment but a sincere request.
When I need support in both work and my personal life, my coworkers will proactively help me by picking up slack on my tasks and offering back their own versions of a candy bowl in acts of giving.
Create a culture of giving
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes in his book Give and Take:
“Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”
Why does giving create a ripple effect? When you give as a leader, you create a giving culture by example. Your team sees you giving and they mirror you.
Reciprocation of your giving nature doesn’t happen in one day, but over time. You fill your team’s virtual piggy-bank today, and they will fill yours tomorrow.
You can create a positive work environment by consistently giving your support and having faith that the Rule of Reciprocity will ultimately change your entire team’s behavior.
Because you give, everyone on your team will become more pleasant to work with. They will give to one another. They will perform better because they will band together to support one another when the need arises. That culture of giving will make them a more cohesive unit, and they will feel happier working together to get things done.
Ultimately, your consistent acts of giving at work will reward you through the success of your teams.
Take the time to give today with your in your life and at work. You’ll find it will eventually lead not only to your own success, but to the success of those who surround you.