Reciprocity at Work: How to Master Persuasion in Your Workplace

Reciprocity at Work: How to Master Persuasion in Your Workplace

Picture this. You’re planning a party, and you’re mailing out invitations. You address one to a co-worker who you don’t particularly like. You don’t actually want him to come to your party, but he invited you to his party earlier this year, so you feel obligated – even compelled – to invite him.

Here’s another scenario. Crazy Aunt Susie sends you a Christmas card. You haven’t heard from her in years. You’re not close to her, and considering her age, you might not ever see her again. Still, you automatically add her to your Christmas card list.

You probably encounter scenarios like this all the time. You feel obligated, indebted and duty bound to act a certain way. Why is that? The reason is because you’re a human being governed by human psychology.

In the above examples, you saw the principle of reciprocity in action. This is one of the 7 principles of persuasion that Robert Cialdini explores in his groundbreaking books Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. I gave you the bird’s-eye view of the reciprocity principle in my recent post Persuasion at work. You have many more ways you can use reciprocity to positively influence your employees, though.

Reciprocity Recap

The principle of reciprocity relies on our powerful, internal sense of obligation. When someone does something nice for us, we feel indebted to that person and compelled to do something nice for him in return. Even if he did that nice act out of the kindness of his heart, we still feel indebted until we pay it back. You see the feeling of indebtedness at work in the two examples above, to which I’m sure you can relate. Feeling the need to reciprocate a kindness is natural.

Some experts believe that reciprocity is our brain’s way of simplifying decision-making. As human beings evolved, our brains developed shortcuts to make reasonable decisions faster and more reliably. Reciprocity is one of those shortcuts. Instead of using cognitive resources to figure out if, and how, we need to respond to another person’s actions, our neurological wiring tells us, “That person did something nice for me. Now, I must do something nice for him.”

Cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox claim in their book The Imperial Animal that we humans live in a “web of indebtedness.” This web is how we manage the division of labor. It’s responsible for commerce. It’s even how we have organized our society into interdependent units. Reciprocity is responsible for us being such an industrious species, apparently!

Reciprocity can make your workplace happier and more productive, too, if you know the right ways to trigger it. One of the simple ways to trigger a sense of positive reciprocity in your employees, mentioned in my 7 Powers of Persuasion post, is rewards.

Use a system of random rewards to motivate your employees.

If you notice an employee displaying behavior you want to encourage, give him a gift– without any warning. Remember, it MUST be a gift. A gift certificate, a nomination for an award or public recognition for your employee’s positive actions in your next employee meeting will go a long way in triggering the rule of reciprocity in your employee. He’ll be more likely to continue that desired behavior as a thank-you for doing something nice for him. This is just one way to trigger reciprocity to better your workplace, but so many more are available.

Liberally Share Your Knowledge

Reciprocity at Work: How to Master Persuasion in Your Workplace

Modern marketers do this all the time, and you might not have even noticed. In fact, an entire category of marketing, called content marketing, revolves around this notion of sharing knowledge . In content marketing, marketers create expert, content-like blog posts, e-books, infographics, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc., with the purpose of engaging their target audience.

Sometimes the engagement they’re after is prospective customers discovering the content in a Google search (search engine optimization or SEO). Sometimes what the engagement marketers want is more about building a positive, long-term relationship with the customer base. Sometimes, though, marketers engage the audience with content in order to trigger the reader’s sense of reciprocity.

A great example of this is when you go to a company’s website in search of a solution to a problem and encounter an offer for a free e-book prominently displayed on the homepage. You click the link for the company’s blog at the top of the page, searching for information on how to solve your problem. The blog is full of actionable, practical information that you can actually use. As you continue to click through the site, you discover a resources section, like the awesome one we have on the Axero site, full of guides, checklists, tip sheets, infographics and more e-books. When you get ready to leave the site, you’re met with a pop-up offering complimentary access to an exclusive online workshop. All of this content covers subjects in which the company is an expert. You can download any of it for free and learn how to solve the problem yourself.

How do you feel about that company now? Do you think they’re crazy for giving you content that enables you to solve your problem, instead of pushing you to buy the company’s solution? Or do you feel grateful for the help, grateful enough, that if you do decide you need to pay someone to solve your problem, this company is now at the top of your list? This is reciprocity in marketing.

A website visitor who receives valuable information for free is more likely to feel obligated to buy from that website or company.

It’s the digital equivalent of the free samples you get at the grocery store. It’s why every time you buy something from a company, you end up on its email list, continually being sent emails until you unsubscribe. The company keeps providing you with value (if the marketing is being done right) so you continue to feel like you’re on the receiving end of a gift. Check out these 10 examples of how marketers are using reciprocity every day without you probably even realizing it. How can you apply this concept in your workplace? How can you share your expertise in a way that motivates employees?

The answer lies in what so many marketers are doing wrong. Many marketers will ask the audience to share their names and email addresses in order to access a certain piece of content. While this is common practice today and we’re all somewhat used to it, we’re also getting sick and tired of the two big pitfalls:

  1. When you hand over your email address, you know you’re going to get marketing emails from the company going forward. Unsubscribing from any email list you don’t want to be a part of is a simple matter, but it’s still an unwanted hassle.
  2. Sometimes the content on the other side of that “email gate” isn’t worthwhile. Now, you’ve given out your personal information for content you can’t use and don’t want.

Smart marketers recognize these pain points in their audiences and are addressing the issues in a couple of ways.

Some companies are choosing to give their premium content away without asking for personal information in exchange. Because this makes building relationships with prospective customers difficult, you won’t see it often. More commonly, marketers are sharing a huge amount of value up-front before asking for the reader’s name and email address.

The Nielsen Company is a good example of this. When you go to their Reports page and click to view one of the reports, you won’t see a form. Instead, you’ll find a brief article about the report. You can read the article, and if you decide you want to download the whole report, you can click the big Download button on the right. You know exactly what you’re getting with these Nielsen reports – no bait-and-switch, no mystery content.

We actually do this at Axero, too. We spend a lot of time writing blog posts to share things we’ve learned and to give away a lot of information for free. Our goal is to help you solve your problems. At the end of each post, we provide an offer to download premium content. The landing page for each of our premium content pieces describes exactly what you’re getting before you provide your name and email address to download the PDF.

As a leader in your workplace, here is your takeaway: Gating off your knowledge can frustrate and alienate your employees, but making your valuable expertise readily available with no hoops to jump through can make your employees feel grateful to you. Think about all the ways you can make your knowledge easily accessible to your employees. Using your company intranet, you can

  1. Write an ongoing series of blog posts or detailed articles.
  2. Start an open discussion and ask people what would make their job easier.
  3. Create a wiki to share information you’ve learned.
  4. Build a dedicated space on your intranet for a subject, project or issue.
  5. Schedule daily “office hours” where employees can come into your office to talk to you without scheduling a meeting.

Bribe Your Employees … Thoughtfully

Sharing your knowledge with your team is by far the easiest way to trigger positive reciprocity in your employees, but a little ethical bribery can go a long way, too.

Late last year, I got a large envelope in the mail. When I opened it, I found a paper survey from a company I didn’t recognize and a dollar bill. Now normally, that survey would have gone straight into the trash, but the dollar bill changed the scenario. I took the dollar (I mean, what else would I have done with it, mailed it back?), filled out the survey and sent it back.

The dollar bill was a blatant bribe, and it worked. Think about how you could apply this concept to your team to keep the members feeling motivated and performing at their best.

  1. Bring in donuts every Monday morning.
  2. Take one employee to lunch each week.
  3. Schedule a monthly employee appreciation event.
  4. Create a reward system that incentivizes everyday activities and then reward people more extravagantly when they go above and beyond.

BUG Your Team

No, I don’t mean harass your employees, nor do I mean put electronic listening devices in their cubicles. The term BUG, refers to an old Amway tactic. One of the original multi-level marketing companies, Amway sells health, beauty and homecare products to people in their own homes. This savvy company came upon a smart idea to trigger the reciprocity principle in prospective buyers. It taught its representatives to leave a package of sample products, called a BUG, with the prospective buyer for up to three days. The package was free, with no obligation to buy. The buyer was asked only to try the products at his leisure. After the three days were up, the rep would go back to the buyer’s house to pick up the BUG and collect any orders. By far, more prospects bought Amway products when they received a BUG. Why? Buyers bought because of a sense of obligation triggered in by the generosity of the rep.

The subscription box company Birchbox

uses a similar method, minus the door-to-door representative. Users can subscribe to the service, having a box of makeup samples delivered to their door each month. Once they’ve tried the samples, they have the option of buying the full-sized product from Birchbox’s website. Since they’ve already sampled the goods, they’re much more likely to buy.

You might be wondering how you can possibly use the BUG method in your own workplace? It’s a great tactic for getting your employees excited about using the intranet. Start a free trial of Communifire. Then tell your employees that you’ve worked out a deal to let them try out this intranet software for 14 days. Ask them to set up their profiles and use the communication tools to chat with each other. Encourage them to explore all the possibilities the intranet could provide and make sure you give them the time to explore. Tell your employees that if they like it, you’ll buy it for them. BUG deployed.

Be Genuinely Generous

Beyond using Bugs and bribery, you can also use generosity to trigger reciprocity. Consider this. You’re at a restaurant having lunch with a friend. It’s no big deal. You’re just getting caught up: finding out how your friend’s family is doing, how his business is faring and how he did on that March madness bracket. Then the check arrives. Your friend is too fast. He grabs it before you can even say, “It’s my treat.” He says today’s lunch is on him and you can get it next time. Suddenly and inexplicably uncomfortable, you say, “Sure.”

A few weeks later, that same friend calls you and asks you to help him move. Without even blinking, you say, “Sure,” but you hate helping people move. Why did you just agree to this? It goes right back to the principle of reciprocity. Your brain used its built-in shortcut to make a split-second decision: Your friend did something nice for you, and you must do something nice for him in return, even if the exchange is dramatically uneven.

Bribes and genuine generosity are different, however. A bribe is deliberate. Generosity, on the other hand, is unselfish. It’s not a ploy. It’s not even really conscious, making it a tricky reciprocity tactic to use. It’s also one of the most effective. Be generous. Give first. Ask yourself, “Who can I help?” not, “Who can help me?” That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

  • Give your time.
  • Give your knowledge.
  • Give first.

You can use your company intranet to set up systems for almost anything – including generosity.

  • Add a task to your weekly to-do list to “be generous.”
  • Start an idea discussion board to gather ideas from your employees. Ask them to post about what they need and want in their work lives and personal lives. Frame it as a place where everyone can ask for help, recommendations, and resources and receive help from whoever on the team can give assistance (like the Next-door neighborhood social network, but for your team). Also, use the board as personal inspiration for your own generosity as a leader.
  • Set up an issue tracker for your team if it doesn’t already have one and keep an eye on it. Focus your time on looking for opportunities to lessen your employees’ workloads, to make tasks simpler for them, to cut red tape and to ease their minds.

3 Keys to Reach the Reciprocity Master Level

By following the advice in this article, you can quickly, easily and ethically put the reciprocity principle to work in your workplace. Use the following three keys to make all of these tactics work in the best possible way:

  1. Whenever possible, give first. Don’t wait to be asked for something. Be proactive in giving.
  2. When it comes to gifts, make the employee feel special by giving things that are unique and personal, making sure that they are unexpected. Remember, a “gift” is different from a “reward.” For example, a Starbucks gift card would be appreciated by your team coffee fanatic, but the latest bestselling business biography would be a better fit for your team bookworm.
  3. Don’t be coy. Let the employee know the resource, reward or assistance is from you. Reciprocity won’t work when the receiver can’t put a face with the kindness.

Congratulations! You have now reached Reciprocity Master Level.

The Persuasion Master series will teach you how to use the Commitment and Consistency Principle to make your workplace happier, healthier and more productive.

Why Your Company Needs an Intranet Software Platform

Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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