Why mutuality matters more than reciprocity in a human-centered world

by | Mar 11, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

ReciprocationYou, then me, then you, then me…

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 From the “Principles of Ethical Influence,” a Pocket Guide by Dr. Robert Cialdini

This pocket guide has maintained a place of honor in my wallet for years. The laminated guide summarizes the esteemed psychologist’s key principles of ethical influence based on research. The card also defines the term. According to Dr. Cialdini, “The ethical use of influence means: being honest; maintaining integrity; being a detective, not a smuggler or bungler.”

To be honest though, does this 2003 card about reciprocation fully capture how to best interact with others whom we value in 2023, including work colleagues? Reciprocation has a transactional feel about it. It’s all about making exchanges. Consider the expression, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” We interpret that idiom to mean one person helps another on the condition that the second person helps them in return.

By contrast, don’t you and your co-workers and friends want to each have each other’s back? That phrase means that you support one another because you have mutual respect for each other. The respect comes from the trust you’ve developed with one another because you’ve invested time, energy and commitment in getting to know each other and building relationships.

Mutuality and reciprocity are not mutually exclusive. You can do both. Reciprocity continues to be a helpful practice that’s grounded in social norms. Afterall, who doesn’t like favors and acts of kindness, especially when you don’t expect them? However, mutuality is a more deliberate action intended to help humans and humankind.

When you embrace mutuality, you take a more human-centered approach to how you relate with others. You give more weight to building and sustaining relationships with people than striving for efficiencies in everything you do. And you count on yourself and other people to help you get through challenges and adversities. To say it another way, you think and act more like a human than a traditional economist or even a capitalist.

Note that being human-centered and being business-centered are not mutually exclusive either. You can enjoy strong, trusting relationships as well as achieve profits. However, when you’re human-centered you can expand your focus to include other values, such as individuals, community, resilience, stability, well-being, cohesion, the environment, beauty, love and other non-economic ideals that matter to you and your group. You also make an effort to set priorities and understand the potential unintended consequences of your actions, and plan and decide accordingly.

Human-centered businesses that emphasize mutuality exist today. For example, if you snack on M&M’S®, SNICKERS®, or SKITTLES®, feed your pets PEDIGREE®, WHISKAS®, or  ROYAL CANIN®, or eat BEN’S RICE® or a number of other foods, you’ve experienced the company Mars and its principle of mutuality. Because Mars is a family-owned business, it has the “ability to think in generations, rather than just business quarters.” Mars associates also uses the company’s purpose and its principles to guide how they do their daily jobs, as I learned during a Josh Bersin Academy webinar on human-centered leadership earlier this year. That’s what got me to thinking more about mutuality, especially as it relates to reciprocity.

As explained in the webinar and on Mars’ website, the Five Principles provide “clear direction and a moral compass” for the more than 140,000 Mars associates to conduct business in 80 countries. The principles state:

  • We are committed to Quality of work and contributions to society.
  • We embrace our Responsibility (as individuals and a company) to act now.
  • We base decisions on Mutuality of benefit to our stakeholders.
  • We harness the power of Efficiency to use our resources to maximum effect.
  • We have the financial Freedom to make our own decisions, unrestricted by motivations of others.

The best-selling author and social psychology professor Adam Grant also advocates for mutuality, in friendships as well as in work situations. He suggests adjusting your perspective. “If you see success as a zero-sum game, life becomes a series of cutthroat competitions. You reach the top by taking others down.” However, “if you see the possibility of mutual benefit, your goals shift from crushing the competition to making a contribution.” And even more rewarding and beneficial, “you rise by lifting others up.”

To start seeing the possibility of mutual benefit, you’ve got to get to know people who you work with. Really know them. Find out what makes them tick. For example, who or what has inspired them to become who they are? How have they been shaped by their values, family, friends, and community? What cultural influences have had a big effect? What about lived experiences? What are their sources of strengths and challenges? What are their passions, values, and purpose? Be curious. Ask questions. Go deeper. And share your story too. Look for commonalities, differences, and shared as well as distinct hopes and dreams.

Making these connections will help you build stronger relationships and play better together. After all, being human is a team sport. We humans don’t always agree with one another; however, we can respect one another, which will help us through the tough times.

That’s especially true if we remember that we humans are complex, contradictory, and self-centered unique individuals who see the world in our own way. These differences along with our camaraderie, which we bolster with strong relationships, help us build a better place and world.


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