Aug 112011

Reciprocate.  We Live In A “Quid Pro Quo” World.

When you do something for someone, do you expect them to reciprocate?  It depends, of course.  Sometimes we do something for others “out of the kindness of our heart,” or because they’re someone that we’re close to and we actually derive significant satisfaction from doing something nice for them.

However, outside of those situations mentioned above, when we do something for someone else, there is usually an implicit, if not a stated expectation that they will do something for us in return.  In fact, basic contract law is based on that very principal and there must be “consideration” (among other things) for a contract to be legally binding.  What does “consideration” mean in this sense?  It means that there must be something of value being exchanged for something else of value.  This is the essence of reciprocation or “reciprocity” and reflects the commonly used Latin phrase “quid pro quo,” which means “what for what” or “something for something”.

Why is this important to you in your business, in your social media interactions, and in the rest of your life?  It’s important because it is one of those “laws” of human nature that is very tough to shake.  It just “is”.  You can choose to acknowledge it and use it to your advantage, or you can ignore it at your peril.

The human urge to reciprocate and expect reciprocation is so strong, in fact, that Robert Cialdini in his classic book, Influence, refers to it as the “Rule of Reciprocity”, one of six key psychological principles he explains that form the basis for effectively influencing other human beings.  Reciprocation has become such a basic part of the “social contract” of human civilization, that from a very young age, in most countries of the world, children are encouraged to reciprocate kind acts and it becomes part of the foundation of their behavior.  There are exceptions, of course, as with all psychological concepts, however the “Rule of Reciprocity” is more or less universal, and it is very powerful.

Ok, so what are we saying here?  Should you just begin doing kind things for others and expect them to turn around and do something nice for you?  Not exactly.  The reality regarding reciprocation is that it is often not immediate; in fact, sometimes it never comes.  But if you have “the right perspective,” that really doesn’t matter.  The way I look at it, I do not proactively do kind things for persons whom I don’t respect, just so they “may” do something nice for me in the future.  My approach is that I am constantly trying to be proactive about “acts of kindness,” but I only do it for those I respect and/or care about.  My thinking is that, in that case, if the “kindness” never comes back to me, who cares?  I’m happy to do it anyway, as I’m doing it for someone I respect and/or care about.

That said, if you want to be a bit more calculated about your “acts of kindness,” acknowledging openly that we live in a “quid pro quo” reciprocity-driven world, it’s not hard to do so.   This principle can be, and is, used in everything from negotiating, to social media interaction, to parenting and beyond.  It pervades almost every activity in our society.

Keep your eyes open for the “Rule of Reciprocity”.  Use it to your advantage, but only in ways that you are comfortable with.  If you use it prudently, you will find that you can tap into a millennia-old foundational aspect of human behavior and more than likely, in a large number of such interactions, you will derive significant satisfaction from helping others, regardless of whether reciprocation ever comes.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin

  • Shanley Knox

    Loved this! Really helped to think about my interactions with people – find, at times, that I get so busy doing my work I forget to give to the people that help me along the way. I find that when I do, and they are generally people I respect – the reciprocation comes. But can you be more specific about how and when you would do this – especially in the social enterprise circle?

  • Hi, Shanley. Thanks for your comments. I’m happy you enjoyed this post. I’d like to answer your question, but first I want to make sure I understand it correctly — when you say “social enterprise circle,” are you referring to “social media”? Paul

  • Margaret (Peggy) Herrman

    again, spot on. I think it is called “building relationships.” this is so much more than building numbers.

  • Thanks, Peggy. As you know only too well from all your experience with conflict resolution, reciprocation is fundamental to building and maintaining good relationships. There’s an inherent need for symbiosis, so that both parties feel as though they’re getting something from the relationship and want to continue with it. Thanks for your insightful comments, as always. Paul

  • Wonderful post! The first time I read it, I just couldn´t comment on it. I kept thinking and thinking. Even if you do things “out of the kindness of your heart”, it´s so difficult to accept that there are people who don´t even say “thank you”.

  • Thanks, Maria.

    I couldn’t agree with you more! It used to bother me quite a bit when people wouldn’t even take the time to say “thank you,” when I did something nice for them, but now (with the exception of my kids), I just let it go and move on. I’ve found that the dividends, both psychological and otherwise, are tremendous.