Sunset over Lake Erie

A sunset is a gift with no strings!

While there are many leadership types and models, one commonality is that the really great leaders have the ability to give and take feedback. The free flow of feedback is a form of reciprocity in which the gift is honest and well-meaning knowledge, advice, or guidance. Servant leadership requires this type of reciprocity. The servant leader works to empower and serve the people he or she leads while the free flow of feedback generates engagement and brings teams and organizations together. Generating reciprocity is an important skill that needs to be carefully cultivated by a leader. Servant leaders at the team level often use two basic tools to generate reciprocity: gift giving and content marketing.

Gift Giving: Part of every leader’s routine is the active search for behavior they want to encourage. Positive feedback it a great tool for encouraging people to continue that behavior. However, positive feedback is not enough to generate reciprocity. In order to create reciprocity, the leader should combine gift giving with positive feedback. Gift giving means that the leader will, without warning, give the person performing the behavior a gift (no strings). The occasional nature of the gift/reward is important as constant rewards become expectations and expectations do not generate reciprocity.  In addition to the cadence of gift giving, the gifts should be public. Public gift giving highlights the event to others in the team and provides the additional positive attribution for the recognized person. Gifts don’t have to all expense paid trips to a spa or resort. Rather, a gift can be a simple as taking the person to lunch or highlighting the behavior at a department meeting. Just as important, rewards can be team based such as a team appreciation event or occasionally bringing donuts for the team.

Content Marketing: Leaders actively help those around them to learn. Leaders can take a page from the marketing world and act as a source that provides information to practitioners so they can solve their own problem.  In marketing circles, this is content marketing. The concept and tools of content marketing are a mechanism for leaders to deliver content or information to those they are seeking to influence. Providing the information outside of the standard coaching/mentoring approach allows team members to self-serve. The ability to find information, knowledge or advice without the strings of providing direction  (Review the essay Reciprocity or Manipulation? Seven Simple Questions to help shape how you deliver rewards and information.) is a powerful type of gift. Examples of content marketing methods of delivering information with delivering it in a directive manner include:

  • Office hours for informal coaching
  • Knowledge sharing sessions to share knowledge
  • Wikis/Blogs
  • Lean Coffees

In all cases, the leader needs to focus on sharing knowledge without adding strings to the content.  Attaching strings is a tool for manipulating the recipient. Once someone knows they are being manipulated the chances of inducing positive reciprocity to go down.

Reciprocity is a tool to lead and influence people.  Like every tool, there are responsible and irresponsible ways to wield the tool. The intent of the servant leader should never be to manipulate those around them to the detriment of the follower.  A servant leader needs to help people to become more effective. Leaders should use rewards and gifts to generate relationships that have reciprocity at their core. In order to accomplish this task, leaders should give first. Make the recipient feel special (don’t give a coffee gift card to someone that abhors caffeinated beverages). Making sure what you are giving is unexpected. Finally, remember, let the recipient know the resource, reward or assistance is from you — reciprocity requires everyone in the transaction understand who is involved.