Harnessing the Law of Reciprocity

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Categories: Communication, Stakeholder


I have become an ardent advocate for "the law of reciprocity" -- the principle that when you do a favor for someone, he or she will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return. And I believe it should be consciously practiced within the work culture. 

Reciprocating to a goodwill gesture is one of the universal rules of good manners. It is a principle that comes naturally to many of us despite our culture. Organizations and businesses are now capitalizing on this principle to build relationships internally with their employees and externally with clients and customers. Reciprocity exists in many different ways, such as: 

  • Information or good advice that is of value to the receiver 
  • Help or a kind gesture 
  • Recognizing and appreciating a person's contribution
  • Remembering events that are of importance to others
  • Rewards, celebrating personal or group achievements and successes
  • Sharing job opportunities or networking leads
  • Creating convenient services for employees, such as complimentary or subsidized meals for workers or on-site child care 
  • Free services for clients and customers
  • Thank-you messages
  • Public acknowledgment or mentions of good work 

So how can a culture of reciprocity help projects and those who work on them? 

Employee psychology surveys and studies have found a positive relationship between supportive organizations and employee commitment to the organization. These employees often also showed willingness to help the organization reach its goals. What's significant from these findings is that as reciprocity as a whole increased, so did employee obligation.  

Commitment and obligation to pursue project goals is ideal for project managers and project-orientated organizations. Therefore, creating a reciprocating project environment can only deepen individual and team commitment and ownership of tasks and concern for the project. It can also help increase individual satisfaction and team motivation as individuals feel supported, valued and connected. 

Project leaders can utilize the law of reciprocity by engaging and encouraging feedback from team members, and then using the information to create well-defined and simple processes or provide the means to make their work efficient. By removing unnecessary obstacles and demonstrating an active interest in wanting to help, leaders send a clear message to the team that its time and views are respected and valued. In return, team members may feel more obliged to reciprocate these efforts and show willingness to support the project and the manager during difficult circumstances. 

Reciprocity with project sponsors and executives can pay dividends for a project manager as well. A sponsor may become more willing to support the project manager in pivotal matters, such as acquiring resources and approval processes. And being in a reciprocal relationship allows project staff to say no to requests without angering or offending stakeholders -- with good relationships, there is more understanding and forgiveness for when things go wrong. 

Beyond project teams and stakeholders, reciprocity should be exercised with clients, customers and vendors. This is good for projects as it helps develop robust, long-term relationships rather than one-time engagements. And these relationships are especially useful when negotiating for resources, contracts, deadlines and finance-related matters.

But beware of how you approach reciprocity. It should be informal and without expectation of return in a specific situation or by a specific date -- otherwise it becomes a bribe, something negative and undesirable. Reciprocation should be carried out with sincerity, generosity and integrity. 

Can you think of a time when you used reciprocation to help with project work?
Posted by Saira Karim on: January 03, 2014 05:51 PM | Permalink

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