behavioral science principle #6



Reciprocity, in its simplest form, is returning a favor or “paying it forward.” Building a culture of reciprocity within organizations can go a long way toward positive employee engagement.

University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker makes a distinction between direct reciprocity—when one individual pays back another for a favor—and generalized reciprocity—where gratitude drives the process of paying a favor forward to a third party. Baker and his wife Cheryl developed the Reciprocity Ring as a way for organizations to practice generalized reciprocity.

The Reciprocity Ring taps into the very principle of reciprocity: People want to be helpful, altruistic, and generous. Given the opportunity, they will. When he first started the Ring, Baker believed the problem would be getting people to help. He found the opposite: “The real problem is getting people to ask for what they need,” he says. “Nothing happens unless there is a request. The request is the catalyst, the key to the whole process.”

HR application

Simply put, you get what you give. Employees will be more motivated to make an effort if they believe their employer is invested in employee well-being. Behavioral economist and engagement strategist David Kovacovich offers the following tips for using reciprocity principles to enhance employee engagement:

  • Be transparent. “We cannot afford to work in silos anymore. We cannot protect managers who do are marginalizing their employees’ talent nor can we empower employees simply based on their willingness to raise their hand.”
  • Make it meaningful. Engaged employees see their work as being part of something bigger than themselves. There’s a larger purpose that drives them. “We should have faith in what we do and encourage our employees to do the same.”
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