The Power of Reciprocity

Prague Leaders Magazine, March 2010

Like many people, I attend a fair number of social events, especially those of the various Chambers of Commerce in Prague. I find them an excellent way to meet people and stay visible, as well as to extend and maintain connections. I rarely go home from one of these events without having had an introduction or conversation that will, in some way, benefit me down the road.

Of course, you cannot get that introduction or have a conversation and think there is nothing more to be done in order to tap the well of riches. You must take the next steps.

For me, that usually means sharing some information, doing a simple favor or providing a contact to the person with whom I want to foster a relationship. These small measures engage the other person and, if all goes well, allow me to take advantage of one of the most successful strategies people use to achieve influence and get what they want: reciprocity.

Reciprocity is a basic principle in the psychology of relationships. The fundamental idea defines that we are all bound – even driven – to repay debts of all kinds. When someone does something for you, almost automatically you feel obligated to repay in some sort of manner.

The word reciprocity comes from the Latin reciprocus, which means “returning the same way.” It refers to something done or given in return. It is the universal belief that what you give will eventually come back to you in similar fashion or form.

In today’s self-serving competitive world, when everyone is trying to figure out the best way to succeed and outsmart the competition, the strongest and longest lasting inter-personal relationships are based on the principle of reciprocity. Although we generally prefer genuine interactions without expectation of return, we usually reap personal benefits from the favorable impressions we leave in the hearts and minds of others by behaving in a nice and friendly manner, by doing them favors, or by giving them something they need or want.

In the business world, there is a tacit expectation of return, and smart businesspeople keep that expectation of return at the front of their minds, making sure to keep things in balance. No one wants to be reminded of a favor done and not reciprocated, nor is business selfless – a favor not rewarded can quickly sour a business relationship.

Be the first to give something.

As I was leaving a social event a month or so ago, a young manager who had been briefly introduced to me earlier got in my face with a blunt request. “I just heard that you are a coach with many connections in the business community,” he said. “My company is just entering the Czech market and we need to meet to see how we can work together.”

Apparently, for this newcomer to the Czech Republic, learning that I had an established network suddenly made me very attractive to him. Unfortunately, besides having forgotten his manners, he had also forgotten about the power of reciprocity. As the American author Napoleon Hill says, “Trying to get something without first giving something is as fruitless as trying to reap without having sown.”

The young man wanted something from me. To start a mutually beneficial relationship, he would have done well to ask himself what he could do for me first. In most circumstances, the person who gives first is in control. Whoever is on the receiving end of your favor/gift is then in your debt. That is the situation of influence you want to create and maintain.

If, instead of approaching me by asking me a favor, this gentleman had addressed me with an offer, I might have been receptive to listen to him, and maybe help him connect with some potential customers. His company is new to the Czech market. One of my areas of expertise is cross-cultural communication, I have spent much of the past 15 years helping expats understand and work with the Czech, and vice versa. He could have done something as simple as inquire about the cost of having me do a training session for his company, and I would likely have taken steps to connect him to my network.

Give something that has real value to the recipient.

Another simple way to create or develop a mutually beneficial relationship is to offer information – valuable information that is not easily available is always appreciated.

Back when I was living in New York City, during a conversation with my public relations agency, I learned that a new luxury luggage company was entering the U.S. market and was looking for a flagship store in Manhattan. The same evening, I had a drink with a real estate agent friend, and shared the information I had learned that afternoon.

I was simply doing a favor for a friend. There was nothing in the information I gave her that could benefit me. But by following up, my friend was able to secure a very successful deal with the luggage company. And when I struck out on my own a few months later, she returned the favor by referring me to one of her prospects who was looking for an international business consultant.

The more valuable, substantial and truly helpful your information is, the more grateful and indebted your prospect will feel. Your exclusive information must not be self-serving or conditional in any way. It must benefit your recipient whether or not you get anything out of it. What you give should be all about the person you are giving it to. Trust me, if it is within their power, the recipient will find a way to reciprocate.

Build your bank of “reciprocity credits”.

The ways we behave toward others are “bankable”. Through our positive actions, we build reserve of “reciprocity credit”, a capital from which we may later draw out. The challenge lies in keeping this reserve in the black. Anytime we forget to make a “deposit” in our reciprocity credit reserve or make a massive overdraw by behaving in a self-serving manner we miss the opportunity to create or develop mutually beneficial relationships.

To build our reciprocity credit in simple, easy ways, we can:

  • Be generous, by inviting someone to an interesting social event where that person can extend her/his network
  • Express gratitude, by thanking a person who introduces you to a valuable contact or provides you with some other favor
  • Be sincere, making genuine positive comments about what a person does or says
  • Do small favors consistently, such as noting promotions, sending articles that might be helpful, remembering birthdays, etc.

The bigger the credit, the more influence we have. But make sure to manage your expectations, because sometimes circumstances dictate that time passes before you reap the benefits of reciprocity.

There is an apocryphal tale about Winston Churchill that has him saved from drowning as a lad by a poor Scottish farmer. According to the story, Churchill’s father then offered, as recompense, to put the farmer’s son through college. The farmer’s son was Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, and when, during World War II, Churchill contracted pneumonia, penicillin saved his life.

True story or not, remember that reciprocity can reap big rewards.

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.