Baby You Can Drive My Car

As an employee, I get up in the morning and after a time I locate my key fob and company ID then go to work. I get to help people deliver value and engage customers. I like what I do, however, I have an expectation that if I do my job, the company I work for will pay me what we have agreed upon. We have a reciprocal agreement: we will share resources to achieve a common objective. Reciprocal agreements, formal and informal, are at the heart of many behaviors in software development (including development, enhancements, maintenance and all of the support roles). All reciprocal agreements are at least in part based on a very basic human behavior: reciprocity.

Psychology describes reciprocity as a social norm in which a recipient responds to a positive action with another positive action. Reciprocity generates trust when individuals and groups can anticipate not only how those they interact with will behave but that the behavior of those they interact with will be positive. Someone picking up a check at lunch is a simple act that generates reciprocity and an implied reciprocal agreement. The implied reciprocal agreement is that someone else will pick up the check next time. I remember the first time I picked up a check at lunch when I joined a small consulting team (we were all peers on the team). One of my colleagues said they would get lunch next time. The obligation moves around the team until everyone had “gotten the check.” Establishing reciprocity became a ritual for the team, part of our process of building a relationship. Reflecting back, I do remember one person joining the team that refused to play the game. They did not last very long and no one was sad to see them roll-off to another account. In most relationships (including teams) humans learn to go to great lengths not to create the perception of being a freeloader.

Another potential problem with the concept of reciprocity and reciprocal agreements is that the mechanism is well understood and is sometimes used to manipulate team members. Every salesperson and negotiator understands how to use reciprocity as a tactic and those on the other end of the tactic can smell it from a mile away. Coaches and leaders need to use reciprocity as a tool to build relationships only when they can do so with authenticity or it will not deliver long-lasting bonds or trust.

Scrum, a team-based approach to work, is full of relationships. A typical Scrum team include a Scrum Master, one or more product owners, coders, testers and other roles. A stable Scrum team creates agreements with their Scrum Master and the developers and with their product owner. Each relationship establishes its own bonds of reciprocity and mostly informal reciprocal agreements (we will go into greater detail in the next essay). Without reciprocity and reciprocal agreements, agile can’t work. Without reciprocity, organizations need to leverage command and control mechanisms to organize and control work.

Essays on reciprocity:

Reciprocity and Reciprocal Agreements In Action

Five Reciprocal Agreements In Agile

Reciprocity or Manipulation? Seven Simple Questions

Negative and Unhealthy Reciprocity