The Law of Reciprocity

Rewards always come to people who are able to get things done. But whether you are looking for a job now or trying to rack up the accomplishments that will help you compete for jobs later, you can’t do everything by yourself. In almost every work environment, and certainly in industry, the ability to influence others—to win help with the projects you care about—is an essential job skill.

In this month’s Tooling Up, I’ll discuss what one book calls “the law of reciprocity,” which is one of the keys—perhaps the most important factor of all—in getting things done, with help.

To properly employ the law of reciprocity, you must be in a trusting relationship.

Managing others in an “influence without authority” environment

In companies all over the world, businesses have gotten leaner, flattening traditional hierarchies that were once full of directors and VPs. Today, much of the burden for getting things done falls on people lower on the totem pole.

I am working on an assignment for a research organization that has more than 5000 scientists in 15 countries. Each scientist has interests and goals to fulfill—but so does the local management. Overriding all of these individual objectives is the one grand mission that makes the organization tick, the driver that keeps everyone employed.

How do you manage a system of thousands of staff members doing bits and pieces of research on giant grants spread all over the world? Once, there would have been a complicated system including dozens of staff members in a management hierarchy. Today, the job is done much more effectively by a couple of project managers working from the head office who use an informal system that I will call “influence without authority.”

Respect and great communication

I asked one of these professionals how they deal with getting things done on such a grand scale. His answer is illuminating, and not only for those charged with managing big, important projects. It can also help you with your daily challenges—including finding a job.

“I’m dealing with people in many locations, so my first issue is to understand how to relate well to people of that culture. Simply charging ahead is never a good idea when you are building bridges. Whether this is building a collaboration across labs for a publication or dealing with a major grant across worldwide laboratories, you’ve got to start with respect. And in science, nothing builds respect faster than understanding cultural differences,” says this project manager, a 35-year-old American with a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

“I have no authority over these scientists I work with. They report to their own management. But if I’ve built a respect between us, the link for communication is then open. And that’s where the second major piece comes in. To gain their cooperation, I’ve got to communicate our vision about how their work fits into the big picture. They’ve got to see clearly how helping me get this project accomplished will actually help them, and their colleagues, with their own goals,” he tells me in an interview. He made it very clear in our discussion that no one, no matter how much they like you, is going to work for you or take your recommendations if they don’t understand what’s in it for them.

The bond that keeps people working together on shared goals

In the excellent business book(John Wiley, 1990), authors Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford put into a unique perspective a process that powerful people have been using to get things done for thousands of years. What those authors call the “Law of Reciprocity” is the almost universal belief that people should be paid back for what they do. Another way to put it is, “one good turn deserves another.” Sounds simple enough.

Sounds simple, but many people stumble in the implementation. They come across as manipulative or insincere, which can devastate work relationships. Scientists, with their analytical nature, value straightforward input. Obvious attempts to involve them in someone else’s scheme generally backfire. But when a course of action is likely to be useful to everyone, they are quick to recognize it and go along.

“It’s one thing to remind them of the major goal and the deadlines associated with it,” my project manager acquaintance says. “But it’s another thing entirely to suggest to a scientist that he or she drop a line of inquiry just so that we make our deadline. In order to get to that, we’ve got to have a level of trust that really makes such a request workable.”

To properly employ the law of reciprocity, you must be in a trusting relationship. If a colleague made a special request for your help today, you wouldn’t hesitate if you knew you would be paid back for the extra effort tomorrow. At the heart of it, that’s what greases the wheels of work.

Applying this law in your situation

How can this approach work for you? On just about any project involving more than one person—and any project that could benefit from the involvement of others—you need to help others recognize what’s in it for them. For example, if you want someone with special expertise to do an experiment for you, you need to convince them that the paper you plan to write is likely to be important enough to make it worth the time they’ll spend on it, or that if the results are interesting, there may be a subcontract in it for them on a future grant proposal.

This approach can also help with your job search. Here’s an example of how it could work. John, Susan, and Prasad are three postdocs looking for work in an area where there’s a good bit of science-based industry. They’ve been scouring the ads, networking, and working independently to identify opportunities and turn over stones for job leads.

Recently, Prasad interviewed at a company that has been growing over the past few years and came back with a wealth of information about who does what there, what their interview process is like, and where the prospects might be for new hires at this business. While he didn’t get the job himself, he learned enough about the company that he thought he should share it with John and Susan.

But when deciding to share all the details he’d learned, he thought to use the law of reciprocity and ask John and Susan to pay him back in a way that would provide him with a benefit as well.

“As you hear about opportunities, pass them on, whether it’s an ad you see or a networking lead we can share. And I’ll do the same.” Sure enough, within a matter of weeks, they were all comfortable in a new job-seeking zone of cooperation and mutual gain, much better than the lonely and frustrating searches they had been experiencing.

John, Susan, and Prasad don’t really exist, but I’ve heard very similar stories numerous times over the years. In every case, the people who decided to work together improved their chances for job-market success, thanks to the law of reciprocity.

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