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Updated 26 Feb 2020

Increase your influence today through reciprocity

In this series about the six principles of influence we’ll discuss the principle of reciprocity. 

Axel Rittershaus, 23 February 2016  Share  0 comments  Print

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Imagine it’s your birthday and you ask your friends not to bring any gifts. If they think‚ ‘a birthday without gifts is not a birthday,’ and show up with gifts, you will feel obliged to do the same sooner or later. Even if you know they already own everything and the gift will only end up collecting dust. 

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Reciprocity - The desire in all of us to give back to someone who has given to us

If you get invited to a dinner party, you are most likely going to invite this person back one day. He invited you first, so you will feel the obligation to return this favour. 

Reciprocity is kicking in; it creates an internal conflict to give something back in return. 

Why does reciprocity influence us? 

Looking at our history it makes sense: Humans can only survive if we collaborate. Before we had money, we simply worked with each other and if I did something for you, I was sure you’d do something for me in return. Reciprocity helped our species to survive. 

This influence principle is supported by another powerful driver of human behaviour: Fairness. We watch other people and judge how fairly they behave. We consider it unfair if one person is not returning a favour - no matter if he asked for it or not. 

And if you believe in Karma, not returning a favour or a gift is considered bad for yours. If you give without expecting something in return, your Karma is improving. “Paying forward” is reciprocity in action. 

Reciprocity in business

Today we are bombarded with free samples, trials or three-for-two offers, all of which use the reciprocity principle. In the business context there’s a fine line: If someone gives us a two cent gift and asks us to buy something for R 100 000 in return it won’t work. We are not stupid.

But we are massively influenced by the reciprocity rule. 

What does it mean for you in a business context?

How you can use reciprocity to influence others: 

  • Send someone a little gift without asking for anything in return. A few days later (within a short enough period for the person to still remember the gift) approach her and make your pitch or ask for what you wanted to get. It’s crucial NOT to mention the gift you gave to her or ask her to “return a favour“. Otherwise she would feel you wanted to buy or “bribe” her, and you’ll end in trouble.
  • The gift you are giving should be as personal and unexpected as possible. The more the recipient feels that it’s especially for her, the better it will work. Otherwise it’s not regarded as a gift but as marketing stuff - which does not have the same reciprocity effect.
  • The gift has to be valuable for the recipient. This can be information, a great tip for a restaurant, book or movie, or establishing a contact to someone the recipient is interested in.
  • If you are in a business situation where you need the approval or support from other people, think about what you can do for them first. Do it and only after you have done something good for them, go and try to get their positive support. There is no guarantee, but you can massively increase your chances. 

How to protect yourself from being influenced by reciprocity 

Reciprocity -in -business

If you ever think: “Oh, I should buy from this person or listen to his sales pitch at least, because he gave me XYZ” reciprocity is about to influence your decision making. 

If someone almost forces you to take a gift or wants you to benefit from information he is giving to you, say “thank you, but no, thank you“.

Reciprocity is a very powerful tool to influence others, and if you use it right, while paying attention to the Karma-factor of your action, your influence is going to increase. 

Reciprocity at work - the best salesman in the world 

Let me close with one of the success principles of the best automotive sales reps in the world, Joe Girard, whose sales skills got him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. Every month he sent a postcard to everyone who ever bought a car from him. Everyone. 13 000 cards. Every month. No matter if the sale happened last month or ten years ago. He wrote on the card “I like you” and a short note. 

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It’s no surprise people came back to him whenever they considered buying a new car. They did not always buy from him again, but they always came back and gave him their attention. They felt “well, he’s always sending me a postcard. He’s a good guy. At least I can give him a try”. And that’s all Joe needed: Getting the people back to his dealership, giving him a chance to sell.

In addition to the reciprocity principle Joe showed consistency. A topic we’ll discuss in another episode of this series, because consistency also belongs to the 6 principles of influence.

For a deeper understanding of reciprocity, I suggest reading Roberto Cialdini’s book “Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion“.

Now it’s your turn. Go out and find a way how you can do good, do favours, while improving your Karma and your chances for better business at the same time.

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About the author

Axel Rittershaus

Axel Rittershaus is an internationally renowned C-Level / Executive Coach & Author ( who started as an entrepreneur in the IT industry in 1993. He knows that success is the result of hard work and determination even more than innate talent. A master of maintaining focus and follow-through, Axel is dedicated and passionate to see clients succeed beyond their expectations. His C-level and top executive clients are located in South Africa, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Brasil, Hong Kong, China, India and many other countries. Axel is a multiple Two Oceans and Comrades finisher.

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