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Also known as pre-giving, the Principle of Reciprocity states that when one person does something for another, the second person will feel a strong need to return the favor. In doing so, they rid themselves of the obligation created by the first good deed. This favor-exchange is ingrained in our subconscious and is part of social conditioning in every culture around the world.

The key to leveraging reciprocity in the workplace is to know that results may not be instant. Nevertheless, the sense of reciprocity created will help HR leaders by putting them in a better position to influence their staff members. The feeling of reciprocity can be so powerful that it can make people bend toward those they don’t even know.

Accepting a favor or a gift without attempting to return it is universally seen as a selfish, heartless, and greedy act. This unspoken social pressure, as well as the subconscious feeling that accompanies it, is what drives most people to return the favor.

The “Sweetening the Till” Studies

Back in 2002, a group of researchers from Cornell University, Johnson State College, Monmouth University, and Temple University conducted a couple of studies on how an unexpected gift in the form of candy can influence tipping behavior.

In the first study, it was observed that the average tip increased by about 3% when the check was delivered alongside a single piece of candy. They also noticed that, if every person at the table received a piece of candy, the average tip increased by 18%.

Even more interesting were the findings of the second study. Similar to the first, servers would present their guests with candy alongside the check. The difference, however, was in the delivery method. The research team observed that, if the waiter presented the check with a single piece of candy, started to walk away, pause for a moment, and returned to the table saying something like “For you nice people, here’s some extra candy,” the tip increased by 21%.

As a conclusion, the research team mentioned that “By making personalized gestures such as providing small pieces of candy with the guest check, a server can have a positive influence on the size of gratuity left by the dining party that is independent of the actual quality of the service provided during the party’s dining experience.”

Quid Pro Quo Done Right

What HR leaders can learn from the study examples above is that even small gestures can have a tremendous impact on how they interact with and influence their employees. They should, however, be mindful of the delivery method.

Before engaging in a difficult conversation or negotiation, leaders should look to offer some sort of gift or small favor. It’s important to note that this offering needs to happen before and not during the negotiation. Otherwise, it may be perceived as a form of bribery. A gift will almost always be accepted, even if it’s just out of courtesy or social custom. A “bribe,” on the other hand, will tend to backfire.

Put simply, reciprocity during workplace interactions will increase the likelihood that requests will be met affirmatively. Is your leadership team taking advantage of this simple yet effective persuasion tool? What other techniques do you use in your company to maximize your influence?

Let’s book an appointment and discuss best practices at or +1 (604) 943-0800.

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
Mobile: 604.831.4734