Reciprocity is an important concept in all aspects of life, but it’s one that is often undervalued, overlooked, or scorned in the context of business. However, many people, including us, have found a great degree of success in their careers by using reciprocity both for their own benefit and the benefit of others.
Helping and doing favors or good deeds is one of the basic teachings we learned as children: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Doing good deeds has also been proven to release endorphins, which means these acts of charity and kindness make you feel good. In fact, perpetually kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population.
According to research from Emory University, when you are kind to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up, as if you were the recipient of the good deed—not the giver. This phenomenon is called the “helper’s high.”
When you extend yourself to do acts of kindness, extra work, or invest your time to be helpful to others, it is only logical to expect and hope for reciprocation when the opportunity presents itself. While we are not suggesting that every relationship must be a quid pro quo, relationships, whether professional or personal, always work best when there is symmetry.
This is important to remember whether you are the giver or the receiver of helpful favors. People who are looking for help may be well served to think of the analogy of a bank. You can’t walk into a bank and ask for a withdrawal without having a bank account and first having made a deposit. This is true in all relationships if you truly want to master the art of reciprocity.
While reciprocity can help us achieve our goals and make us feel good when we help others achieve their own, we never want to be the person who is perceived as being too needy, demanding, or stingy with reciprocation. We’ve all experienced that cringing reaction when that person calls you who is going to unload all their problems and troubles and never remembers to ask how you are and what’s going on in your life. We try to avoid picking up the phone for that person and more importantly, we never want to be that person.
So, here’s how to master the art of reciprocity and learn to ask for favors without wearing out your network’s generosity.
If you are the favor seeker, spend as much time researching the person through the lens of what you can offer or how you can be helpful to them. Don’t be focused only on what the other person can do for you as if this were just a transaction, but rather go in with the mindset of reciprocity and building your relationship with them. When you ask for the favor, weave in your newfound knowledge of the other person into your ask so that they see that you’ve taken the time to consider their wants, needs, and interests.
Everybody has something that they can offer, even if you are a 21-year-old just entering the workforce. You can mentor up and offer insights on new technology, Web3, video games you play, what resonates and drives engagement for Gen Z, or offer to help in some other way after you have studied the person you are asking the favor of.
If you perceive yourself to have little to give in return, know that reciprocity can be as simple as circling back to the other person and letting them know the result of their efforts on your behalf such as the impact their support made, the success it helped create. This is a form of reciprocation, because it enhances the other person’s sense of value creation and allows them to share in your success.
If you are asking for someone to give up their time and guide you, make it as easy on them as possible. For example, give them a draft to work with when you request an introduction from them. Consider in advance that they need to know who you are, they need to feel you will be a positive reflection on them and that you will appropriately close the loop and share the results of the introduction.
One of the reasons people resist doing a favor or using their social collateral is a lack of confidence you will follow through, or you will make them look good (that they backed the right person). This is why you need to invest in also making sure you gain the other person’s confidence in you before you ask them to put their name on the line for you.
When you are a generous person who is a giver, it is very easy and natural to continue to give and do things for others because it is in your nature. On the other hand, it is worth going back and reflecting on the people you engage with and asking how many of the relationships are symmetrical and balanced, where the other person is reciprocating favors you have done for them.
Most people have had the experience of extending themselves to help others over a period, even years, and then been very surprised when asking for a favor and the person does not reciprocate. By assessing the reciprocity of your relationships, you can stop investing so much of yourself in relationships that lack reciprocity, and free yourself up to invest more in successfully developing other relationships that are more balanced.
If you don’t invest in reciprocity and make a serious effort to master it, you will inevitably fatigue the people who you are asking for assistance. It helps to approach reciprocity by thinking about it as building a virtuous cycle that keeps renewing; the more help you give and the more the other person reciprocates, the more the other person wants to engage and work with you.
By being protective of your own time and how much you’re investing in others, while also being generous toward those who have helped you, you can master the art of reciprocity and use it to take your personal and professional growth to whole new levels.