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Influence stakeholders using the reciprocity principle

I love reading books from outside of the world of internal communication to improve my skills, and I am especially draw to psychology. One of the most useful books I’ve ever read is Influence by the psychologist Robert Cialdini.

It was written in the early 1980s but is still absolute gold and hasn’t aged a bit. In this book, Dr. Cialdini outlines a number of psychological principles that shape our behaviour and explain what motivates us.

These principles are super helpful for internal communication professionals because our work is so fundamentally about influencing employee behaviour and sentiment. Cialdini’s work is famous in the marketing world but I rarely hear it referenced in internal communication.

Today I’m breaking down one of these psychological principles and showing how you can apply it to your job in internal communication. This principle is “reciprocity”.

What is reciprocity?

Cialdini’s principle of reciprocity states that humans are hard wired to return favours and pay back debts, in other words we will treat others as they treat us. He argues that people will reciprocate favours when they have received one themselves.

Simply put, people feel obliged to return a favour.

Say you invite a distant cousin to your wedding. Maybe you haven’t seen them in a few years and they are surprised to receive the invitation. As a consequence, you’re more likely to get an invitation to their wedding in the future due to this principle of reciprocity.

Has this been proved to really work?

In short – yes.

Have you ever wondered why you often get a mint or a piece of chocolate with the bill in a restaurant?

Studies have shown that waiters can receive more tips simply by giving the customers a gift before they pay the bill. It seems surprising that simply giving a mint could influence the amount of gratuity left, but it works!

What’s super interesting about these restaurant studies is these two little research nuggets:

  • If the gift is doubled (i.e. two mints are given instead of one), the tip doesn’t double as you might expect – it actually quadruples.

  • If the waiter leaves just one mint, walks away from the table but then returns and says “for you nice people, here’s an extra mint” then tips increase by 23%!

This last one adds a layer of nuance to gift giving – the fact that unexpected gifts yield a higher return.

So there’s two key parts to understand if you want to use the principle of reciprocity in your work. Firstly, you must be the first person to give and secondly you should try to make it unexpected.

How to apply this in internal comms

Cialdini was interviewed in the Harvard Business Review in 2013 about his work, and he was asked how the principle of reciprocity could be applied within organisations. For example, how could you use reciprocity to get people to help you with a project at work? Here’s what Dr. Cialdini said:

Get in the habit of helping people out, and - this part’s really important- don’t wave it away when people thank you. Don’t say, “Oh, no big deal.” We’re given serious persuasive power immediately after someone thanks us. So say something like “Of course; it’s what partners do for each other”- label what happened an act of partnership.

Ah. Anyone else just have a lightbulb moment?

Here’s the steps to follow to use the principle of reciprocity in your own role:

  1. Help people out

  2. Do it before they help you with something

  3. Make it unexpected i.e. don’t wait until they ask you

  4. After they say thanks, label it out loud as a partnership

I like this principle because it fundamentally encourages people to help each other out and be nice to each other – even if there is an agenda lurking in the background.


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