Reciprocity, or the act of exchanging things for mutual benefit, is one of the most powerful influence factors that exists.  It transcends all human cultures and almost certainly played a part in the development of human societies.  The unbidden sharing of food, warmth and shelter allowed homo sapiens to develop in ways that other species could not.

The reason that reciprocity is so powerful in influence situations is that as soon as someone gives us something we feel indebted to them.  We may not be aware of this debt but we will feel a strong desire to pay it off.  The payoff will not always be equal and this is often used by marketers to good effect.  Anyone who has ever tried a free taste of something at a supermarket and then felt an urge to buy the packet is proof of this.

Reciprocity shouldn’t be confused with more formal arrangements of the “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type.  It is subtler and also more powerful.  It can be highly effective at strengthening our formal and informal networks, particularly if we make an effort to practice it. Think of reciprocity as a bank account.  If you continually pay into it then you are more likely to have credit when you need to make a withdrawal from someone. 

The acts that induce this influence debt can be anything that is given unbidden.  It could be something practical like helping someone with a problem they are having or something less tangible such as providing support at meetings.  Going out of your way to provide useful information to someone else is a good example of effective workplace reciprocity.  In many busy environments giving your time can induce the feeling indebtedness that reciprocity invokes.

To become better at using reciprocity first become conscious of when you already use it.  Make a note of the unbidden acts of giving that you do each day.  Next start to identify opportunities to increase the number of reciprocal gifts you give.  Try to find new opportunities to go out of your way to help people and then start to see the positive effects over time.  When practicing don’t try to keep count, don’t wait until the other person has repaid the ‘debt’ before you give.  Continue to make unbidden reciprocal gifts

For anyone viewing this as somehow underhand then consider this: Although all type of reciprocal giving will work, for it to be most effective it should have tangible benefit to the other person.  Good acts of reciprocal giving truly help the other person and their organisation. Even though you stand to gain from the exchange in the future, the other person will gain as well.  Reciprocity strengthens relationships and networks.

As well as increasing your influence within your network giving in this way has other positive effects.  Research suggests it make us feel better about ourselves and can ‘catch’ within organisations, leading to a spiral of mutual giving.  There is also some evidence that giving is linked with the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is linked with social bonding and has largely positive health benefits.  

So practice giving unconditionally.  Watch the power of reciprocity not only improve your influence within your network but your working environment too.