The Reciprocity Ring has been in the news again recently. It’s co-creator, Wayne Baker, has a new book out called All You Have to Do is Ask, and he’s been making the rounds in the news media talking about tools that make it easy to ask for help.
One of the tools he talks about is the Reciprocity Ring.
The Reciprocity Ring is an amazing group exercise that was invented by renowned social scientist Cheryl Baker and University of Michigan professor Wayne Baker 21 years ago.
Hundreds of thousands of people have participated in thousands of Reciprocity Rings around the world. Seventeen of the top 20 business schools around the world use the Reciprocity Ring. Fortune 500 companies like Deloitte, Dow, Google, GM, and Facebook have used the Reciprocity Ring exercise.
The Reciprocity Ring is the Heart and Soul of Give and Take
The Reciprocity Ring is also at the heart of what we do at Give and Take. It’s one of our core solutions, and the other is Givitas. Givitas is the everyday, all-year-round version of the Reciprocity Ring.
Therefore, we have Cheryl and Wayne’s work from 21 years ago at the very core of everything we do. Every time someone gets the help they need or feels the warm glow of generosity (in either the Reciprocity Ring or in Givitas), we have Cheryl and Wayne to thank.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked Cheryl to tell me more about the history of this tool. Here’s how the story goes.
The Seed of an Idea
Wayne Baker was a professor at the University of Michigan studying and teaching about networks and reciprocity.
Around 1999, Cheryl asked him how he approached networks experientially. Wayne was teaching MBA students about how to analyze networks. She wondered how he taught them about improving and expanding their own networks?
He admitted he didn’t really have an exercise. All he had was a few stories about how various people had built their own networks.
Meanwhile, they started talking about generalized reciprocity, social capital, and the tragedy of the commons.
Generalized reciprocity is giving something without an expectation of any direct return. It usually happens among close family and friends. For example, !Kung hunters share meat with other members of the family. Perhaps you might buy a cup of coffee for a friend.
One of the most famous examples of generalized reciprocity is the Kula Ring in the Milne Bay Province of Papau New Guinea.
The Kula ring spans 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago and involves thousands of individuals. Participants travel by canoe (sometimes going hundreds of miles) to exchange Kula valuables. Participants trade shell necklaces to the North, circling the ring clockwise. They trade shell armbands to the south in a counterclockwise pattern.
The right to participate is not automatic, you have to earn it by giving someone something. Above all, the act of giving is a display of the greatness of the giver, and results in stronger social bonds and higher social status. Kula valuables never remain for long in the hands of the recipients; rather, they must be passed on to other partners within a certain amount of time, thus constantly circling around the ring. However, even temporary possession brings prestige and status.
Social capital is defined by Robert Putnam like this:
The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”].
The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well.
The Tragedy of the Commons
The tragedy of the commons is when individuals tend to exploit shared resources so the demand greatly outweighs supply, and the resource becomes unavailable for the whole. The concept was made popular by the American ecologist Garrett Hardin. He used the following analogy: when ranchers graze their animals on a common field with plenty of grass, there are very few problems. But an enterprising rancher will want to add livestock in order to increase profits. He’s thinking rationally for himself but not collectively. The benefits of increasing the number of animals benefits the individual rancher, but the cost of the used resources hurts everyone. The tragedy of the commons is that eventually, no one will be able to graze the field due to overconsumption, including the enterprising rancher himself.
That is to say: if humans are in a situation where there is a scarce but commonly accessible resource, we will all act in our own self interest and consume as much of that resource as possible. As a result, this behavior makes that resource even harder to find. We see this dynamic play out in a hundred different ways every day.
The Birth of the Reciprocity Ring
As they discussed these concepts, Cheryl and Wayne started to think about how the concepts related to each other. They started to wonder if they could create an experiential exercise where help (e.g. resources, advice, experience, support, connections, introductions, or any other kind of help) was the resource. Could they get people in the academic and business world to freely give of these favors the way that people do in the Kula Ring, and in the process, improve everyone’s social capital?
The answer was a resounding yes.
As a result, Cheryl and Wayne started working on an exercise that applied all these principles. They workshopped it. They hired eight trainers and independent consultants, stuck them in a room for two days, and hashed out an exercise that achieved what they wanted it to. Susan Coppage was one of many contributors to the development process.
When they emerged from a long period of refinement, they started introducing the concept to various academic and business groups.
How the Reciprocity Ring Works
The Reciprocity Ring is a guided group activity. It makes it easy for people to get what they need by tapping into the giving power of the network. There is no limit on the number of participants. However, we typically break up larger groups into smaller groups of 20-24.
There is a facilitator (anyone can do it with the training deck we provide). He or she explains the purpose of the activity and shares high-level benefits of asking for and offering help.
Each participant then takes turns sharing a request with the group. Everyone else takes a moment to think about how they can help. Perhaps they have a resource someone needs or they know someone who does.
Most importantly, the exercise requires everyone to make a request because it creates a sense of psychological safety for everyone else there. Just as the participants of the Kula Ring must give something away in order to participate, in a Reciprocity Ring, you must make a request in order to participate.
Ideally you have two rounds of requests: a work-related round and a personal round.
The Short Version
A more informal version involves having everyone post their requests on boards around the room. Then everyone else goes around and offers their help wherever they can.
Sometimes requests are personal and dramatic. Lives have been saved, birth parents located, bucket-list items achieved.
Sometimes there are dramatic business results. One pharmaceutical company saved $50k. It turned out a lab within their own company had slack capacity to help with a project they’d been planning to outsource.
Often the results are not so life-changing, but they do make a big difference for the person who’s asking. People have shared help on highly technical reports, found mentors, been introduced to favorite celebrities, gotten vendor recommendations, and made friends.
According to Wayne, “the power of the Reciprocity Ring is how it taps the deep well of hidden resources that exist in every group. And just like a muscle, the more people and organizations use the Reciprocity Ring, the more powerful it becomes. When an activity is repeated over time, people have learned to expect positive responses, which gives them confidence to make bigger and bigger requests. The returns to the team and each individual member only grow into what is truly a virtuous cycle.”
When asked what motivated her to come up with this idea and work on it for 21 years, Cheryl mentioned the South African philosophy of “ubuntu.” It’s a bit tricky to define in English, but it essentially means “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
If you’re interested in learning more about how to use the Reciprocity Ring in your group, contact us to learn more.