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Smart Leaders use "The Law of Reciprocity"

We have all heard of the expression, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. You will all be aware of the phenomenon of wanting to return a favour or pay back a good deed. Maybe someone bought you a nice present out of the blue and you feel an overwhelming urge to respond in kind. We have probably also all been in that awkward position where someone unexpected has bought you a Christmas present, resulting in you frantically searching through the house in order to respond in kind with an appropriate gift. Ideal candidates being the bottle of wine that has been in the rack for 5 years or the set of smelly soap that Auntie Doris bought you last Christmas.


But joking aside, the point here is that when someone does something nice for us, we have a basic human response to return their kindness. Put very simply, social psychologists call this the “Law of Reciprocity” or in other words, when someone does something kind for us, we want to reciprocate the action.

This in itself isn’t earth shattering news and has been well documented over the last few decades. However, it is an everyday occurrence that often goes unnoticed by our conscious mind.

It is also prevalent in every day corporate world too. That sales guy that wanted to win your business……you know…the one that offered you free tickets to go and see the Football / Rugby / Baseball match? Although such blatant tactics are often frowned upon these days, the subtle ones still remain. The invitation to dinner, a few drinks down the pub or even the freebie during the presentation does still happen. I have lost count of how many free USB sticks I have been given over the years. And whilst their intention may not be to expect anything in return, your overwhelming “Law of Reciprocity” urge will kick in and potentially blur your decision making process. We want to be kind to kind people, right?

Isn’t it strange that at restaurants they will often give you “free” mints or chocolates, just before you are about to pay the bill? Ever wondered why they do that? Not after the bill is paid, but just before it? Maybe they took it a step further and offered a free dessert or free drink? Either way, they are banking on the fact that you will repay their kindness with an increased tip or maybe a return visit. Sure, food quality, customer service, venue and a whole host of other factors play important roles too, but behind the scenes your subconscious is screaming “repay them!!”

So, assuming that you don’t run your own restaurant business, how can you use this as an individual to help you in your everyday working life?

Well, the first thing to understand is that it needs to be done in an authentic and kind way. Doing “something” or giving someone something, just to manipulate them or to get something back in return is not the way to go about it. People will quickly become suspicious of the over generous salesman and can easily see through insincerity.


However, random acts of kindness, when done for the right reasons in the right place can really foster the Law of Reciprocity. Hopefully you have all read my blog about Haribos, but as well as a great way of livening up a meeting, they in themselves kick start the Law of Reciprocity. Offering to fetch someone a coffee, buying them lunch, giving a colleague a lift home in the rain, holding open a door, helping someone with their work, even just being polite and kind are all simple ways of sowing the Law of Reciprocity seedling. So much so, that when you need someone’s help next time, you shouldn’t be short of willing volunteers.

Happy reciprocating

David Stack is founder of Brightfrog Ltd, an IT consultancy business with a twist. David has over 20 years experience in the Pharmaceutical and FMCG industries and uses common sense, great dedication, enthusiasm and a pinch of social psychology to deliver great results. (

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