Why Your Company Won't Repay Your Favors

Last Updated Jun 21, 2011 6:23 PM EDT

A few years ago, my senior associate dean at Stanford Business School told me that they needed to use their very scarce raise dollars to retain and motivate my younger colleagues who would be the future of the school. So, regardless of performance, I shouldn't expect much. Because I have tenure, I am much better off than many others, including partners at law and other professional services firms, told that "their best days are behind them" and that they have to go.

But wait a minute. This can't be. The norm of reciprocity, in which people invariably repay acts of kindness and generosity bestowed on them has been found in every society, and even among other primates, notably baboons. How can venture capital firms, management consultancies, law firms, and even universities not show appreciation for the people who helped build these organizations--and in many instances made the current set of ingrates rich and successful?

Seeking an answer to this question, I had a conversation with noted social psychologist Robert Cialdini. In his book, Influence, Cialdini discussed reciprocity; when we spoke, he had just completed yet another study on this idea. Our discussion led to these principles of reciprocity and recommendations to make the most of it in your career.

Gratitude is a much, much less powerful force motivating behavior and is fundamentally different from reciprocity. To fully activate the norm of reciprocity, you have to do something for another that wasn't requested and that benefits a particular individual--you have to go out of your way to do something for another person. Just doing your own job well isn't enough. For example, although it is true that others in the firm benefit from a partner's business building and great work, so, too, does that partner. While your workmates may appreciate what you have done to build your organization's reputation and success, that appreciation--gratitude--is not going to powerfully affect their behavior toward you.

Individuals and organizations reciprocate differently. Evolutionary psychologists have discussed why repaying favors and gifts could be functional for individual survival; such behavior facilitates coalition building by ensuring benefits will be repaid and also enhances the likelihood of other forms of cooperative behavior surviving and spreading. Meanwhile, organizations are filled with all sorts of procedures designed explicitly to override personal predispositions and tastes--after all, efficiency demands that hiring and promotions be as merit-based as possible, not premised on whether or not someone is beholden to the candidate.

Organizations are oriented toward the future, while individuals are much more captured by the history of their past interactions with others. Recent economic stringency has made this statement even more true. A New York executive recruiter, Richard Stein, quoted in an article on the growing frequency of easing out senior leaders, commented, "All the rules have changed...In a market that's become extremely lean and mean, these individuals who have tended to be the senior statesmen of their day are sometimes the first to go."

To benefit from the principles of reciprocity in your career:


  • Make your accomplishments salient. What people notice and attend to is an important principle for understanding behavior. If you want people to be attentive to your past contributions, make sure those contributions feature prominently in their current thinking. Remind them of the history of the firm and your role in it, as well as past business successes of which you were a part. This strategy won't work perfectly because of the tendency to think of the future and because history of any sort is often forgotten in contemporary culture. But it can make a difference.
  • Do things for specific individuals and be sure they know about it. After Senator Lyndon Johnson was one of just two senators attending the funeral of a relative of Senator Robert Byrd's, their relationship warmed. Jack Valenti, the former head of the Motion Picture Association of America, would invite representatives and their families to private screenings of films at MPAA headquarters, and would go out of his way to pay attention to the children and spouses in attendance.
  • Don't expect that your past performance will matter going forward. Eschew any form of deferred compensation that is not contractually guaranteed, as it can disappear. Be sensitive, maybe even paranoid, about the intentions of your colleagues and don't rely on their kindness. Demonstrate your value anew.

We live in a competitive world in which people frequently act on the basis of their own self-interest. This means they will embrace you when you provide value and forget you the minute you don't. This tough lesson is being played out in work organizations every day. Prepare and act accordingly.

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  • Jeffrey Pfeffer

    Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he has taught since 1979. Pfeffer has authored or co-authored 13 books on topics including power, managing people, and evidence-based management. He has lectured in 34 countries and has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE in Barcelona. Pfeffer has served on the board of directors of several human-capital software companies, as well as other public and nonprofit boards.