What is the outcome if the sign is on the ground?

In our essay Reciprocity or Manipulation, we broached the idea that reciprocity can be negative. Negative actions are often reciprocated with negative actions.  Just yell at a driver who just misses you as you jog through a city and see what response you get. In general, negative reciprocity is behavior that occurs when an action has a negative effect on someone and that someone returns with an action that is approximately as negative. Tit for tat behavior is a polite way to describe negative reciprocity.

Society views negative reciprocity as a fair transaction. An example of negative reciprocity, viewed as fair in society, is the punishment the judicial systems levees for an illegal act. Society views jail time for robbing a bank as a fair reciprocal action.  A court that levees the death penalty for jaywalking is not considered fair. Another common example of unbalanced reciprocity is road rage. As a general rule, fairness in negative reciprocity requires that the negative action be a balanced or proportional response.

While negative reciprocity is either intrinsically healthy or unhealthy, all forms of reciprocity can at times be unhealthy. For example, negative reciprocity occurs in most relationships, often in an unthinking manner which can generate unhealthy reactions. When negative reciprocity generates unhealthy or bad feelings, a coach first needs to help the involved parties see the pattern of behavior that causes those feelings and then help them sort out their reactions before the pattern spirals out of control.

A common form of negative reciprocity that can have a lasting impact occurs when an employee (or employees) intentionally perform poorly.  The intent is to “even the score.” Treating individuals or teams in a way they believe is unfair (it does not matter whether the slight is real or perceived) will cause them to react in kind. A few years ago I worked on a project where half of the teams were instructed to cancel their vacations while others were not asked. The amount of sick time in the “no vacations” teams skyrocketed.

Other scenarios that create unhealthy forms of reciprocity include:

  • Generous acts that generate uncomfortable or unethical obligations. When I worked in a bank, we were not allowed to accept a gift of over 30 USD (assumed cost of a lunch) to avoid the conflicts of interest reciprocity can generate.
  • When reciprocity is used to manipulate individuals or teams to act outside of the organizations best interest. A few months ago I overheard two individuals planning to use their votes on a  leadership board as a trade for a future vote. This was even though they didn’t know what they would be voting on. The feeling that by establishing a quid pro quo agreement would ensure them the votes they needed to push their initiative.  (P.S. Never assume privacy when talking in a washroom.)

Reciprocity needs to be a synthesis of normative behavior and ethics within the context of the organization. Without an ethical framework to apply reciprocity, it is easy to stray into an unhealthy zone were the goal stops being to help a person or organization and becomes a tool to extract value.

Essays on reciprocity:

Reciprocity and Reciprocal Agreements In Actionhttps://bit.ly/2MbxIP3

Five Reciprocal Agreements In Agile https://bit.ly/2MguslE

Reciprocity or Manipulation? Seven Simple Questionshttps://bit.ly/2CDotIa

Negative and Unhealthy Reciprocityhttps://bit.ly/2oZRp3v