Reciprocity and Expectation

I got a phone call out of the blue yesterday.  I have noticed that this kind of call can either be a complete waste of time (’do you want to save money on your toner cartridges/wine/mortgage/pet insurance?’) or thought-provoking.  This one was most certainly the latter.

Tip of the day

You may have noticed on the main Management Pocketbooks website (you can get to it by clicking the logo at the top of the right hand column next to this blog) the Tip of the Day function.

SeeOurTipoftheDayTipoftheDay29Apr2011

If you click on it, you will get a different tip each day.  This caller had done just that, and got one of mine.

Keeping Promises

‘If I keep my promise, will you keep yours?
If I don’t believe you will, why should I bother?
Vroom’s model of motivation!

This tip came from the Management Models Pocketbook, where I describe Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory.  This is the section in the free extract you can view on the Management Models Pocketbook page, by clicking on ‘view extract’.

The tip was about the way that we can fail to motivate others if we get a reputation for not delivering on promised rewards.  But the tip had resonated with my caller in another way.

Honesty and Reciprocation

In her job, Alison had been thinking about the importance of truth and honesty.  She had read the quote and thought about the reciprocation of honesty, which got us into an interesting discussion about the nature of truth.

Reciprocation appears to be a fundamental part of human nature.  It is the basis of a large part of our society:

  • Trade, commerce and negotiation
  • Moral philosophy (do unto others… – the so-called ‘golden rule’)
  • Community and the trading of favours
  • Criminal justice (punishment fitting the crime – an eye for an eye)
  • Diplomatic exchange and warfare

Of course pure reciprocity is not always seen as the ideal in all of these cases.  In negotiation, a win-win goes beyond pure exchange of fair value and in moral philosophy, alternative approaches have developed and extended the golden rule, starting with Kant’s categorical imperative.  In community, the concept of paying forward, rather than paying back emerged in the 1950s and hit its peak of popular awareness in the 1990s with the film ‘Pay it Forward’.


There is no need to analyse the failings of tit-for-tat reciprocity in the criminal justice and diplomatic arenas!

In the world of influence, reciprocity is king

As Richard Storey points out in the Influencing Pocketbook, appeal to self interest is a powerful influencer.  But what is equally powerful is to appeal to our innate instinct to reciprocate a gift or a concession.  It is as if, your self interest served, you feel a need to express your gratitude with a reciprocal action.

This offers me a powerful way to influence your thinking or your behaviour.  If I meet your need or give you something you want, then you will feel an urge to give me something in return.  If I give you an honest answer, then you are more likely to be honest with me.

Game theory

But here is where the problem lies.  If I deal honestly with you, can I expect you to deal honestly with me?  If I do trust you and you reciprocate, we can get the best possible collective results, but if you cheat on  me, you optimise your gain, while I lose out.  So what should I do?

This is the domain of ‘game theory’ – the mathematical study of sequences of plays within a set of rules, where the players have some choice.  It turns out that tit-for-tat is a pretty good strategy…

… but not the best.  Constant cheating and constant trusting are both poor strategies, but one strategy stands out.

I am wondering whether I should share this.  What are the ethics of sharing a strategy that must mean some cheating, some trusting and some tit-for-tat behaviour?  Hmmm, that is something to think about.

So here’s the deal

The optimum strategy  in part depends on the strategy of your counter-party – your ‘opponent’ in the game.  But one of the most successful strategies seems to be ‘modified tit-for-tat’.  This means you start by reciprocating, to build trust, but every now and then, take advantage of the situation by cheating.  Then, revert to tit-for-tat behaviour to rebuild trust… and so on.

Does that sound familiar?  I have encountered it a number of times and it hurts.  For those of us who believe we act fairly and with integrity, encountering it in someone we trust is unpleasant.  It leaves us with a difficult choice: one I faced recently.

Should I reciprocate the cheating behaviour?  That was my instinct.  But maybe pure reciprocity is not the ideal strategy.  I relented and resorted to a tactic designed to rebuild trust.  Does this make me a gullible mark, ready to be fleeced the next time?  I don’t think so, because there is always one strategy I have not yet rolled out: not cheating, not trusting, not tit-for-tat.

You can always stop playing the game.

Some Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

The Negotiator’s Pocketbook

The Influencing Pocketbook

The Handling Resistance Pocketbook

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