By Ralf Quellmalz


Reciprocity is a powerful norm.

Reciprocity, the social practice that entails responding to a rewarding action with another rewarding action to create mutual benefit, currently guides most relationships. Whether it’s business or personal, reciprocity tends to direct and influence our behavior with each other.  

Reciprocity has been historically practiced by humanity for countless reasons. For instance, by ensuring that people receive assistance when they need it and making sure others do the same with us, we help promote the survival of our species. At the same time, reciprocity enables us to maintain our already-established relationships by investing our time, energy, and effort on them.

However, reciprocity’s tit-for-tat does fall short when we seek to earn the respect of our peers, build upon our reputation, and try to build meaningful relationships.

The Pitfalls of Reciprocity:

Giving tends to come with strings-attached

If all we focus upon is on being reciprocal, then all giving we provide we will do so with the expectation of receiving something in return. Therefore, people on the receiving end might end-up feeling manipulated into having to return the favor sometime in the future. Reciprocity then ends up coming with strings-attached, making both parties feeling that their relationship is founded upon transaction and not connection. Consequently, all chances of creating a genuine relationship comes to an end. Whether in business or in our personal lives, relationships ought to be founded upon common ground and shared meaning, not tit-for-tat.

Two people interchanging gifts to represent the law of reciprocity
Are we indebted when we practice reciprocity?

Giving is directed only to those who can benefit us in some shape or form

When people give with the expectation of receiving something in return, they will only give to those from whom they can benefit from in the future. Such behavior upsets everything that’s noble and humane about giving: rather than making it a generous and selfless habit, we turn it into something selfish and self-serving.

Relationships ought to be founded upon common ground and shared meaning, not tit-for-tat.

Is all giving equal in value?

Research has shown that people tend to feel obliged to return a favor with a proportionally larger one. Reciprocity then becomes something uneven and, rather than making both parties feeling better off, creates a feeling that one party has abused another. Instead of creating win-win situations, reciprocity will most likely lead to zero-sum relationships.    

Expedition Behavior to Build Authentic Relationships

Rather than focusing on reciprocity’s tit-for-tat, we should focus on what National Outdoor Leadership School founder Paul Petzoldt and Wharton professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant describe as “expedition behavior.”

Instead of creating win-win situations, reciprocity will most likely lead to zero-sum relationships. 

Expedition behaviors involves having people’s mission, goals, and interest at heart at all times while showing the same amount of care and love for others as you do for yourself.

Expedition behavior is the fastest route towards earning people’s respect and appreciation while emerging yourself as a leader. Why? Because rather than giving with either the expectation of receiving something back or with the desire to advance your own interests, expedition behavior sends the message that your heart is in the right place and that decision-making revolves around the well-being of the group.

A group of people walking over a river crossing highland to represent the power behind expedition behavior
Expedition behavior fosters teamwork, collaboration, trust, and empathy

Why give with the intention of receiving something back and making others feel indebted? Why lead with the purpose of placing personal interests above that of the group’s? What’s the purpose of influencing people through command-and-control when you can empower them to live up to their full potential? Why gain authority when you can earn prestige?   

Expedition behavior sends the message that your heart is in the right place.

Make Giving the Destination, Not the Ticket to Get There

When we focus on reciprocity, we make giving the ticket to arrive to our selfish end-goal. We upset the nature of giving and, rather than making it an act of generosity, we transform it into something to boost of our own egos.

Giving without expecting nothing in return should be something we practice on a daily basis. The reward of our giving should not be measured on what we can get out of it, but on the fulfillment and personal satisfaction that comes from giving itself. Helping other people is its own reward.  

We can be an authentically kind-hearted being and still be successful. Why? Because the more we give, the more respect we earn from those around us. The brightest way to shine is by helping those around us shine.

The brightest way to shine is by helping those around us shine.

People today strive for independence – they see independence as a symbol of courage, strength, and fortitude. We avoid depending on others because ‘it makes us seem weak.’ The fact is that it’s only when we have each other’s back, unite our strengths, and embrace our differences that we can overcome obstacles and leverage our skills for the greater good.  

An adult's hand giving a child's hands the seeds to plant a tree to symbolize giving

We are social beings. We want to be remembered for what we did for others. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what our job title is, how much money we make, the positions we held, the neighborhood we live in or the size of our house. What truly matters is the impact we had on other people’s lives.

A fulfilled life is one that leaves a legacy behind. A legacy that shall stand the test of time and that will keep us alive way beyond our lifetime.

It’s only when we have each other’s back, unite our strengths, and embrace our differences that we can overcome obstacles and leverage our skills for the greater good.  

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