In Culture

Remember the last time you were stuck on a project at work and couldn’t make any progress by yourself? Imagine you could have reached out  to a handful of people who you thought might be able to help you, calling for a quick brainstorming meeting. For the next fifteen minutes, you were surrounded by a dream team uniquely equipped to help you, who dropped what they were doing to work through this problem with you.

Impossible? Unscalable?

This practice of generalized reciprocity was institutionalized in Xerox’s logistics group under leader John Clendenin. Called “huddles,” these impromptu 15-minute think tank sessions were a huge success. Employees who had been asked to help always showed up, because they knew that the favor would be returned when they needed it in the future. Xerox’s huddles are a tangible example of generalized reciprocity in the workplace.

In its simplest form, reciprocity is the exchange of resources between two people. You give me something, and you’ll get something in return. Reciprocity is a widespread practice in organizations because, as is shown by Wayne Baker’s research, it improves productivity, promotes learning, and builds a climate and culture of trust. In addition, companies with higher rates of helping behaviors have lower employee turnover, enjoy greater customer satisfaction, and are more profitable.

So what is generalized reciprocity?

The idea behind generalized reciprocity  is “I help you, and you help someone else, and maybe that person will end up helping me (or someone else) some time in the future.”

There are two types of generalized reciprocity, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to share some of the benefits to both organizations and individuals when principles of generalized reciprocity are implemented in the workplace:

  1. Employee trust increases.
  2. Group cohesion intensifies
  3. Stronger connections develop as generalized reciprocity unlocks hidden resources within employee groups.
  4. Employee emotions are lifted and improved
  5. Employees start to like co-workers, managers, and the organization more
  6. Employees’ intrinsic motivation to fully engage in work is heightened.
  7. Efficiency and effectiveness of resource exchange within the company is greatly improved as employees are able to uncover new resources and solve more complex problems faster, resulting in saved time and money for the company.

Researchers have found two main types of generalized reciprocity: paying it forward and rewarding reputation.

  1. “Paying it forward” is just as it sounds. You help me with something, and I’m so grateful that I help a third person, thereby “paying forward” the good deed that you did for me. I am driven by the positive emotion of gratitude

Researchers have derived the cause of “paying it forward” reciprocity to be the positive emotion of gratitude. Jo-Ann Tsang found that gratitude is an even stronger motivator to give than the feeling of indebtedness or obligation.

  1. Rewarding reputation. If you have your doubts that your team members are motivated by “paying it forward” and gratitude, you may find the “rewarding reputation” explanation a little more realistic. “Rewarding reputation” is more about helping others strategically so you get the benefit of a better rep.

Most of us probably engage in both kinds of reciprocity and are motivated both by gratitude and by a somewhat selfish desire to seem helpful or proficient. That’s ok! While paying it forward has stronger and more lasting effects, all reciprocity in the workplace drives the kind of benefits I listed above.

At Give and Take, our knowledge collaboration platform, Givitas, is designed specifically to help organizations harness the power of generalized reciprocity to improve business outcomes. For companies or individuals who subscribe more to the “pay it forward” type of reciprocity, Givitas provides a platform that makes it quick and easy for employees to be “givers” on less than five minutes a day. Employees who answer requests do so knowing that the person they are helping will go on to help another colleague in the future, or that they themselves may have an occasion to ask a question in the future. We help facilitate that warm, fuzzy feeling of gratitude regularly, in addition to the practical benefits that come from having so many collaborators available to help at all times.

For employees or organizations where rewarding reputation is culturally more of a driver, Givitas has leaderboards, “upvotes”, thank yous, and other forms of public recognition that demonstrate to all that your company supports and believes in generosity, and being generous improves your internal rep.

Back to Xerox’s “huddles” that I mentioned earlier. Givitas is a scalable technology solution that mimics these huddles, giving you access to the best and brightest people in your work network without waiting for the next huddle and without everyone having to stop what they’re doing and walk over to a common area.  It helps people keep the chain of help and favors going, without breaking it.

Reciprocity is a powerful prosocial behavior and establishing institutional practices of generalized reciprocity is an innovative and effective solution to unlocking hidden resources, increasing employee connectivity, and more effective problem solving.

How does your workplace routinize generalized reciprocity? Comment below.

Interested in learning more about how Givitas can help instill reciprocity in your team? Schedule a demo today. 

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