Create Trust and Accountability on Your Software Team
Implementing the Reciprocation Principle to Improve Team Performance

Create Trust and Accountability on Your Software Team: Implementing the Reciprocation Principle to Improve Team Performance

The basic premise of the reciprocation principle is explained in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition by Robert B. Cialdini. If someone gives you something or provides you with a favor, you feel the obligation to repay them in like manner. If a co-worker picks up your lunch tab, chances are, you'll pick up their tab the next time out. You help a friend move to a new home, you'll expect to see them the next time you sell your home. When you receive a favor from someone, you are placed in a situation of social debt. Society has attached a social stigma to moochers and free-loaders. As a result, most people feel very strongly about paying back their debts.

Often this rule triggers an unfair exchange, as the indebted person may not be in a situation that allows for a fair payback. In these situations, it is not uncommon for the indebted person to return the favor in a manner that has significant more value than the original favor. This is commonly encountered in the world of sales. A salesperson may provide a potential client with an expensive dinner or round of golf. They know that this will enact the reciprocity rule within the client, and make it more difficult to turn down their request for a large order of whatever they are selling.

Practical Applications on Software Development Teams

There are countless ways to apply the reciprocity principle when trying to affect change within you software team. While I've listed a few ideas below, use your imagination to come up with many others. I would suggest that you read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition by Robert B. Cialdini, as this book does a fantastic job explaining this principle and how it can be applied in practical situations.

Maintain Appropriate Boundaries With Team Members

There are numerous practical applications of this principle within the software development leadership realm as well. You may have noticed that leaders often don't accept small favors from their team members. Maybe they'll turn down an employee's request to pay for lunch or coffee. Perhaps it seems that they turn down just about everything that could be deemed as a favor. It's not that they are being ungrateful. It's just that they are aware of the reciprocity principle, and don't want to allow themselves to be in a situation of indebtedness, especially when it comes time to conduct an annual review. As a leader, the social boundaries need to be slightly different with your direct reports than the boundaries you maintain with your peers.

Grant Extra Flexibility

However, while there are things to avoid regarding the reciprocity principle, there are ways to enact it with your team that may increases productivity and effectiveness. One practical application is to grant your team flexibility. Maybe you let them work from home on occasion. Maybe you provide significant flexibility for appointments or child-care situations. By granting your employees those favors, they will feel the need to reciprocate in like manner. As a result, they will work extra hard to make sure they complete their work on time. However this will only work in situations which you are providing them flexibility that is not the norm, or not expected.


This can also be demonstrated thru the application of trust. If you trust your employees and their work, they will reciprocate by trusting your motives as well. If you are constantly questioning their motives, their work, and their abilities, you will find that will also tend to question your abilities, your motives, and your leadership skills.

Take Ownership for Team Performance

Take ownership for the team's performance. Make sure that you don't allow your team to take the heat when they aren't able to finish on time, or problems are encountered. They'll feel obligated to do whatever is humanly possible to deliver on-time. If you throw them under-the-bus the first time you encounter problems, they will have no interest in putting forth extra effort when the situation occasionally calls for it.

Cross-Team Collaboration

When dealing with other teams, you will find that there may be situations where another team needs help to get a particular job finished. When you volunteer help from your team, you will find that the leader of the other team is now feels indebted to you, and will feel obligated to help your team out the next time the need arises.

Are you interested in learning how to improve commitment and buy-in on your software team? Then continue reading...

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