What’s wrong with reciprocity?

The Giving Kind, Reciprocity

In Adam Grant’s Give and Take, the author defines three types of professionals: There are givers, matchers, and takers. Givers are people who “help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs.” Matchers strive “to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting,” believing that one’s relationships “are governed by even exchanges of favors.” Finally, takers are those who believe that in order to succeed, they must be better than others, so they try to get more than they give.

Providing weighty anecdotes to demonstrate his principles on givers, matchers and takers, Grant easily makes the case for why being a giver is superior to being a taker. I find it more difficult, though, to be convinced that there is anything wrong with being a matcher. I’d guess that for most of us, matching is a natural code of conduct for relationships. Matching ensures that we feel our relationships are fair and it makes us feel a true sense of responsibility to others. Sure, matching may not be the key to climbing to the top of any professional ladder, but it sure seems like a great way to get pretty high up there. So what’s the downside?

As Grant tells it, there are two major disadvantages that come with living by the rule of reciprocity. The most basic negative is that being a matcher means your network will inherently be smaller. If you limit yourself to operating on a tit-for-tat basis, your network will only grow so much as you see an immediate benefit in it. To put it bluntly, matchers only want to give to people who they think can help them. The problem with this way of thinking is that you will undoubtedly miss out on numerous connections that may not be able to help you in the immediate future, but could help you later on. Because givers don’t restrict their networking to only people who can give directly back to them, they are able to build significantly larger networks that can come in handy later down the road.

But it’s the second disadvantage to reciprocity that resonates more with me: Living based on reciprocity means your relationships will be more superficial.  Grant says “When favors come with strings attached or implied, the interaction can leave a bad taste, feeling more like a transaction than part of a meaningful relationship.” We may not like hearing that because it might remind us too closely of many personal relationships in our lives, but don’t you largely agree with Grant? For me, at least, I find that my deepest relationships are those with the people who I can say to (and mean it), “don’t worry about paying me back!” When you enter into this kind of relationship you inevitably build a trust that goes deeper than the transactional relationship.

This same principle applies to our professional relationships, as well. How much more does it mean when someone connects you to a prospective client without seeking anything in return? It feels pretty good, and you’ll probably be more likely later on to find opportunities to help that person in return, not because you have to, but because you actually want to.


*All quotes from Give and Take, by Adam Grant


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