Is give-and-take an old-fashioned notion?

I invite your help in figuring this one out! Has give-and-take gone out of style?

For centuries, the norm of social reciprocity—exchanging kindness, goods and services for mutual benefit and not the icky quid pro quo stuff based on shady dealings or subtle manipulation—has been part of the cultural fabric.

In their book, People of the Lake:  Mankind and its Beginnings, Richard Leakey and Kurt Lewin remark that our ancestors participated in an “honored network of obligation” i.e., I help you, you help me. I’ve benefited countless times from this informal system of give-and-take, participating in little slices of humanity exchanged at home, work, and in life encounters with friends and near strangers.

Forms of reciprocity

Reciprocity, typically in one of three forms, is an element in many aspects of our lives such as the leader/follower relationship, economics, justice in determining punishment that fits the crime, and in personal and professional relationships.

  • Generalized reciprocity is an exchange in which a person gives a good or service to another, does not receive anything back at that time, but has the expectation of future repayment. Think of a mentor/mentee relationship or watching the neighbor’s house while they’re on vacation as they’ll do the same for you when you go away.
  • Balanced reciprocity as defined by Wikipedia “refers to direct exchange of customary equivalents without any delay.” Think bartering, exchanging notes from a business conference with a colleague, or a neighborhood boarding up each other’s windows in advance of a storm.
  • Negative reciprocity is the most impersonal form of exchange, in which each party's goal is to get as much as they can with little to nothing offered in return. Think someone trying to take advantage.

What's Being Observed

Reciprocity is a social lubricant, yet several micro and macro circumstances have me scratching my head about what is/may be happening to this norm.

  • At a recent community listening session, I facilitated a table discussion amongst eight individuals from a variety of walks of life. When the session was over, several people began exchanging business cards. A business woman politely said this to everyone who offered her a card, “Thanks. I don’t want your card but I do want you to have mine. Here you go.”
  • Research shows that bosses who treat people with kindness, respect and dignity are “seen as less powerful than other managers.”
  • Duty of care within the corporate realm seems to be more of an option than a customary and welcomed “honored network of obligation.” While companies provide wages in exchange for work, less care is taken with providing training and development, minimizing bias, not expecting 24 x 7 email availability, and consulting employees on issues that concern them.
  • Six people volunteered to develop a workbook for a nonprofit workshop. Five of the six agreed to edit and proof each other’s content. The sixth wanted others to critique his materials but declined to review the materials of the others.
  • Workplace performance systems and compensation programs reward “winner take all” and “conquering hero” actions more than collaborative, team-oriented endeavors in which employees freely share information and help with one another. Professor Walter Fluker writes in his book Ethical Leadership, “In a world of winners and losers, there is little room for principles of equity, reciprocity, and impartiality.”

What's Being Pondered

As I noodle these happenings, I ponder:

  • Has the “honored network of obligation” become tainted with unethical behavior such that people no longer feel the need to exchange things for mutual benefit? Do they feel they can use technology and social media to do it on their own?
  • As kindness is perceived as a weakness, might a concern for being seen as soft contribute to not wanting to both give and take?
  • Has the expectation of returning a favor become a quaint, old-fashioned notion in world where opportunities to take abound?
  • Does the possibility exist that I’m over-thinking this whole thing (*smile*)?