This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
If you do something for someone, they feel obliged to repay the favor. People feel a strong obligation to repay favors, gifts, invitations and the like. This powerful principle, applying in every society on earth, stems from the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is the powerful psychological principle of reciprocity, that Professor Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice discusses in his book and in his website, influenceatwork.com.
Each of us has been taught to live up to the rule, and each of us knows that other people expect us to abide by it. If we don’t repay a favor at some stage, the other person will react badly.
The principle applies in sales situations and in relationships everywhere. You have seen it happen, probably without realizing the psychology involved: direct marketing often involves sending you a small gift or token to make you feel obliged to respond in return by signing up. When you receive something, you feel morally obliged to go along with what the other person wants. Do you recall getting a pack of unsought blank Christmas cards in the post from a charity? The charity has used the psychology of reciprocity by giving you something unexpected – and they know that enough people will feel obliged to accept the cards and pay for them to make the exercise profitable for them.
In the office, if you want to encourage positive attitudes and productive working relationships, you need to make the first move. You should model the behavior you want to see from others. Giving a gift, remembering a birthday and other small thoughtful acts mean a great deal to people.
Thoughtful acts from the boss give us a real lift in morale. But have you ever thought of reciprocating? Thoughtful acts to the boss are also well received! Do you ever give compliments or ‘active encouragement’ to your boss on their achievements, even small achievements? Unapproachable or difficult bosses are still human and they still have their good points. Perhaps you may have been looking at your boss from ‘the glass is half empty’ point of view, rather than from ‘the glass is half full’ point of view. Giving appreciation to your boss is a leadership attribute and is therefore a valuable skill for you to develop.
Employee recognition has the same effect. What the textbooks don’t say is that if you recognize someone for a job well done or praise them for efforts above and beyond the basic requirements of their job, they will not only be more positively motivated in their work, but they will also hold you in high regard forever! And their colleagues will respect you and the recipient (assuming you handle the situation well).
The same holds true for managers faced with issues of information delivery and resource allocation. If you lend a member of your staff to a colleague who is shorthanded and facing a tight deadline, you will increase the chances of that person helping you when you need help.
Or if you give other people privileged information or a preview of important information (like a report) ahead of others, those people feel an obligation to return the favor in an equivalent way. You can build alliances by supporting and doing favors for people in critical positions because they will feel a need to reciprocate to some degree.
You can make the need to reciprocate work even more strongly if you say something like, “You’re welcome. I’m sure you would do the same for me if I were in your position.”
Think about the people in your workplace and think of the small favors you can do them. What about getting them a coffee when you step out to buy yours? What about helping them when they are struggling with a deadline? Could you offer them some helpful advice or early warning of a looming problem? Could you give them off-the-record feedback about comments from the boss? Could you give them a privileged preview of a report you are engaged on?
If you make a mental note to do favors for others you will find they will respond in kind. What’s even better is that these favors are ways to offer courtesy and respect to others out of human kindness without necessarily expecting anything back.
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