Picture this. You're planning a party, and you're mailing out invitations. You address one to a coworker who you don't particularly like. You don't actually want him to come to your party ... but he invited you to a 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?
Because you're a human being with human psychology at play.
In these two 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, Use These 7 Powers of Persuasion to Create a Happier, Healthier Workplace. Now I'm going to go deeper on the topic and share with you even more ways you can use reciprocity to positively influence your employees.
The principle of reciprocity relies on our internal sense of obligation. It's powerful. When someone does something nice for us, we feel indebted to that person and compelled to do something nice for them in return. Even if the person did that nice thing out of the kindness of their heart, it still feels like a debt to us until it's paid back.
Reciprocity is at work in the two examples I gave above. I'm sure you could relate to both scenarios. 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 have evolved, our brains have developed shortcuts to make reasonable decisions faster. 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 them."
In their book, The Imperial Animal, cultural anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox claim 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 how we're such an industrious species, it seems!
Reciprocity can make your workplace happier and more productive too, if you know the right ways to trigger it.
In the 7 Powers of Persuasion post, I mentioned one simple way to trigger a sense of positive reciprocity in your employees. A quick recap:
Use a system of random rewards to motivate your employees.
If you notice an employee displaying behavior you want to encourage, give them a gift– without letting them know you're about to do it. Remember, it MUST be a gift, though. Surprise them with a gift certificate, nominate them for an award, or call out their positive actions in your next employee meeting.
This proactive kindness will trigger the rule of reciprocity in your employee. They'll be more likely to keep up that desired behavior as a thank-you for doing something nice for them.
This is just one way to trigger reciprocity to better your workplace. Read on for even more ideas …
Modern marketers do this all the time, and you might not have even noticed it.
In fact, there's an entire category of marketing that revolves around this notion of sharing knowledge – it's called content marketing. In content marketing, marketers create expert content like blog posts, e-books, infographics, videos, podcasts, webinars – the list goes on – with the purpose of engaging with their target audience.
Sometimes the engagement they're after is prospective customers discovering the content in a Google search (through SEO, or search engine optimization). Sometimes the engagement marketers want is more about building a positive long-term relationship with the customer base. But sometimes, marketers engage the audience with content in order to trigger the reader's sense of reciprocity.
Here's an example. You go to a company's website in search of a solution to a problem you have. Prominently displayed on the homepage is an offer for a free e-book. You click the link at the top of the page to go to the company's blog, 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 that the company is an expert in. 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?
That's 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 their email list, and they continue to send you emails until you unsubscribe. They keep providing you with value (hopefully, if they're doing it right) so you continue to feel like you're on the receiving end of a gift.
Here are 10 examples of how marketers are using reciprocity every day – and you might not have even realized it.
So how can you apply this in your workplace? How can you share your expertise in a way that motivates employees?
The answer is in what so many marketers are doing wrong.
Many marketers will ask the audience to share their name and email address 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.
Smart marketers recognize these pain points in their audiences, and they're addressing them in a couple of ways.
First, some companies are choosing to give their premium content away without asking for personal information in exchange. This makes it difficult for the company to build a relationship with these prospective customers, so you won't see this often.
Second, and 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 you 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 then 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 here 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 then end of each blog post we also 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.
Now let's turn this around and talk about how it works inside your company and how it relates to your employees.
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 …
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, there was 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 that dollar bill changed the scenario. I took the dollar (I mean, what else would I have done with it? Mail it back?) ... and I filled out that survey and sent it back.
The dollar bill was a blatant bribe. And it worked.
Think about how you could apply this to your team to keep them feeling motivated to perform at their best.
You could …
No, I don't mean harass your employees. Nor do I mean put electronic listening devices in their cubicles. (Although that's an interesting thought.) The term BUG, here, 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. They taught their representatives to leave a package of sample products – called a BUG – with the buyer for up to 3 days. For free. No obligation to buy. The buyer was asked only to try the products at their leisure.
Then, after those 3 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? Because the generosity of the rep triggered a sense of obligation in the buyer.
Subscription box company Birchbox uses a similar method, minus the door-to-door representative. Users can subscribe to the service to have a box of makeup samples delivered to their door each month. Once they've tried the samples, they have the option to buy the full-sized product from Birchbox's website – and since they've already sampled the goods, they're much more likely to buy.
You might be wondering where I'm going with this one. How can you possibly use the BUG method in your own workplace?
It's a great tactic for getting your employees excited about using the intranet.
First, start a free trial of Communifire.
Second, 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.
You're at a restaurant having lunch with a friend. 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 and 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 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.
There's a difference between a bribe and genuine generosity, however. A bribe is deliberate. Generosity, on the other hand, is unselfish. It's not a ploy. It's not even conscious.
So this is a tricky reciprocity tactic to use – but 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.
You can use your company intranet to set up systems for almost anything – including generosity.
With the advice in this article, you can put the reciprocity principle to work in your workplace.
There are three keys, however, to making all of these tactics work in the best possible way:
Congratulations! You have now reached Reciprocity Master Level.
In our next installment in the Persuasion Master series, you'll learn how to use the Commitment and Consistency principle to make your workplace happier, healthier and more productive.
Tim is a co-founder and president of Axero and the author of his forthcoming book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, CNBC, Today, and other top publications.
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