People are programmed to help each other out. Social psychologists call this socialized behavior reciprocity and it’s evident in all human civilizations. In the United States, we have familiar phrases to describe this aspect of human behavior: “he gave as good as he got”, “one good turn deserves another”, and “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.
Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has studied the topic of influence extensively and he says that reciprocity is one of six fundamental psychological principles that drive the way humans influence one another. In his book Influence: Science and Practice, Cialdini says that most people are in tune with the intricate dance of give-and-take. They realize that there can’t be lopsidedness to the exchange of favors and helpfulness. To over-extend one’s requests is to risk being negatively labeled by our social group. Cialdini says, “Because there is general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered a moocher, ingrate or freeloader.” (p. 22)
All in all, this social protocol is a good thing. It helps people maintain a productive, friendly society. In the workplace, reciprocity is vital to getting things done. Teamwork wouldn’t exist without a healthy dose of reciprocity, so it makes sense there’s evidence of it throughout workplaces across our country.
But there’s a shadow side too. There are those few people for whom reciprocity seems a foreign concept. They’re like the Human Hoovers of the workplace—sucking up all they can manage to get in the name of self-interest. Vacuums are a very effective appliance to use at home, but a real pain to have to deal with as a co-worker.
So why do some of us let these Human Hoovers (“H.H.”) get away with it? That’s where it gets interesting. Cialdini’s research suggests that the power of reciprocity is so strong that people will comply with requests even if the requester is intrusive, as long as the request is perceived to be a small one. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. It sort of sneaks up on you—“hey would you mind getting a second copy made for me while you’re at it?” “I’m swamped, could you just help out this one time?” A civil society (not to mention all those Successories teamwork posters) urges us to comply. Before you know it, you have been sucked in (pun intended) and the requests are getting bigger. Of course, when you ask for a favor in return, these human “takers” aren’t quite as quick to respond in kind. “Dude, I’d love to, but I’m swamped. Maybe Vicky can help you?” Here again, the H.H. completely misses the point of the whole “give-back” aspect of reciprocity.
The next time you feel like you’ve been asked a favor by someone who most likely won’t respond in kind, simply say, “I’d love to, but I’m swamped”. Turn the tactic back on the Human Hoover and see how it works. Or, if it really is inappropriate to deny helping him or her, then negotiate an agreement that’s more palatable for both parties. Chances are, the H.H. might not be nearly as put off as you might think. By you setting a few boundaries, it’s possible that your Human Hoover may actually get the message. Or, at least, go find somebody else to mooch from.
photo credit: istockphoto.com