The law of reciprocity

You get what you give (and vice-versa). I’ve seen this in action in sales many times.
Starting out a prospecting call or receiving a customer call with a negative, resigned or flat, uninterested attitude will not inspire anyone, and more than likely lose you customers.

I find people are often very unaware of just how they come across to other people, and then act surprised when people are rude to them or treat them with indifference. They do not seem to realise that they are often the cause of the response.

One of the key challenges of being in a customer-facing role (sales, customer service, technical support, etc) is that you are not in control of the conditions that you face when doing your job. However, the one thing that you are in control of is your thoughts, and consequently your behaviours and attitude.

One of the key things to remember in any customer-facing role is that whatever you put out in terms of your behaviour and attitude you will attract back to you.

This is called the law of reciprocity, or boomerang principle. Just as with a boomerang, when you throw it, it comes back to you – so it is for your behaviour and attitude. If you send out positive behaviour to your customers, then you will get the same in return.

As we know, our thoughts drive our behaviour and attitudes. So if we want to create a shift around how we interact with our clients, we first need to have a look at the thoughts that we are having around providing service or working in a sales capacity, as this will drive our behaviour and attitude, and in turn our client interaction.

Consider the difference between the following:

  • Negative thought = I’m so busy right now, the last thing I need is another customer calling up and wanting something.
  • Positive thought = I get pleasure from being really good at helping customers and make a difference to them.

Once we start to be conscious of our own behaviour, we can start to observe how our behaviour creates similar behaviours in others:

  • I’m polite – the customer is polite.
  • I’m calm – the customer is calm.
  • I’m rude – the customer is rude.

People state the law of reciprocity in many forms:

  • “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
  • “You reap what you sow.”
  • “You get what you give.”

As Terry Bragg of Peacemakers Training in the US states: ‘Reciprocity is a basis of trust and a basis for legitimate power. The principle is that others will reciprocate in kind, based upon the way you treat them. The world gives you what you give to the world.”

Social psychologists use the term “idiosyncrasy credits” that result from the favourable impressions we make on others. These credits accumulate and you can cash them in for favours or to get others to do things for us. ‘

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, uses the phrase “emotional bank account” to describe the principle of reciprocity and the corresponding credit-withdrawal process in relationships.

Using the metaphor of a financial bank account, the emotional bank account describes the trust that accumulates in a relationship. Like the financial bank account, you must make deposits before you can make withdrawals. This ties in neatly with my article last week on Contact vs. Connection.

Here are Terry Bragg’s eight important points regarding the law of reciprocity:

1. People expect repayment over time. This is based upon the idea of social exchange. Reciprocity is an implicit assumption in most of our relationships. Giving and receiving favours is a common exchange. When someone does something for you, they implicitly expect that when the circumstance is right, you will do something of approximately equal value for them. For example, if your neighbour helps you put up a fence, your neighbour will expect you to help them when they put up a fence or need other assistance with their home. If you cover for someone at work, you expect that they will cover for you when you need their help.

2. Acts must be mutually rewarding. A successful relationship requires that all parties benefit from the relationship and invest in the relationship. Even when one party might be the primary giver, they still often have the expectation that they will receive in kind – if not from the other party then from the world at another time.

3. Deposits don’t simply accumulate. The value of the deposits can increase or decrease over time. People may forget or ignore small deposits. People may remember big favours and large deposits for longer periods. The value of deposits is what the other person perceives the value to be.

4. You can go in the red. You can wipe out your account with a single withdrawal. If you don’t have a large accumulation of credits, or you make a very large withdrawal, or you make many small withdrawals, you can go in the red.

5. You make deposits or receive credits by making favourable impressions on others – by doing things for them. You make deposits through courtesy, kindness, honesty, respect, and other favours. The favours are often small, but they accumulate over time as your relationship blossoms. The deposits build trust and create a history of what the parties involved in the relationship expect from each other.

6. A history of reciprocity promotes trust. People evaluate your actions and motives based upon their perceptions of your previous actions and motives.

7. Reciprocity is a very powerful form of power. The expectation of giving and returning favours creates an obligation to stick to agreements. This is a very powerful and psychologically binding expectation. Although they may never discuss the expectation openly, it is there and affects negotiations and relationships.

8. Reciprocity can be both positive and negative. If you harm others, they may seek revenge or retribution. People want to make things even in a relationship. They want to do good for those who have treated them well. They want to do harm to those who have harmed them.

By understanding and using the power of reciprocity, you can improve your relationships and avoid mistakes that can permanently damage your relationships. In life and work, you get what you give.

I wish you happy and prosperous selling and service careers.


Sue Barrett is Managing Director of BARRETT Pty Ltd. Sue is an experienced consultant and trained coach and facilitator. Sue and her team are best known for their work in creating High Performing Sales Teams. Key to their success is working with the whole person and integrating emotional intelligence, skill, knowledge, behaviour, process and strategy via effective training and coaching programs. For more information please go to

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