Reciprocation tactics are tried and true. Politicians “logroll” votes on pet projects, companies offer free product samples to consumers, and charitable organizations include small gifts when soliciting donations. According to the norm of reciprocity, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice in return, and vice versa.
In the realm of negotiation, you can gain many benefits from including reciprocation strategies in your toolbox. Reciprocity can be much simpler and cheaper than formal contract reinforcement mechanisms such as litigation. In many situations, negotiators learn to trust each other through reciprocity, which obligates trustworthiness in return.
But not everyone feels comfortable asking for or receiving favors, and it’s hard to know whether an invitation to reciprocate will be accepted or rejected. And what if your counterpart interprets your generosity as a sign of weakness and takes advantage of you?
By following these three steps, you can make an invitation to reciprocate that the other side will value and return in kind.
1. Make sure your behavior cannot be attributed to ignorance or chance. The best invitations to reciprocate are intentional acts of true generosity that unambiguously signal kindness. Therefore, when preparing to invite reciprocation, research your potential offer thoroughly before you meet at the bargaining table. Let your counterpart know that you are well informed and that your offer is intentional.
If you decide to make a generous offer to a potential employee in a salary negotiation, make sure that she understands your reasons for doing so. You may want your generosity to signal how much you value her skills and to invite above-average effort in return. Clearly, you do not want her to attribute your generosity to lack of knowledge of the market.
2. Make your counterpart feel indebted. To signal your willingness to cooperate, consider making a relatively significant gift or concession in the early stages of talks-but don’t budge if your counterpart fails to return the favor. Instead, continue with a reasonable request that exceeds your true goal, adjusting downward gradually. The ideal concession causes you little harm but provides the other side with valuable benefits.
3. Make your invitations to reciprocate attractive. To ensure that your counterpart will comply with the reciprocity norm, you’ll need to make your offer enticing-materially, psychologically, and socially. Be sure to make the generosity of your offer publicly known, and engage in repeated interactions where reciprocal kindness is also in your counterpart’s long-term interest.
Adapted from “Did You Give at the Office? Leveraging the Power of Reciprocity” by Iris Bohnet, Professor, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.