The current COVID-19 situation has forced individuals and businesses around the globe, consciously or not, to review how they keep relationships alive while the economy falters.
Rather than simply focus on a traditional market based transaction – goods and services in exchange for cash, many are also trading within a reciprocal relationship, goods and services in exchange for other goods and services or for goodwill in the future.
In cultural anthropology, reciprocity refers to an exchange of goods or labour where a return is eventually expected at some point in the future. Exchanging birthday gifts or invites to dinner are a good examples of this non-market transaction type. Reciprocation, and the sense of obligation that goes with it is pervasive in human culture, influencing romantic relationships, friendships, professional relationships and even casual encounters such as the need to respond to someone who wishes you a good morning.
The psychologist Robert Caldini illustrates just how powerful reciprocal obligations can be with the perplexing story of five thousand dollars of relief aid that was sent in 1985 between Mexico and the impoverished people of Ethiopia.
At the time Ethiopia was in the midst of a famine that would claim the lives of over a million people, left 2.5 million displaced and created 200,000 orphans. The country was ravaged by war and the economy was in ruin.
Caldini writes, “Under these circumstances I would not have been surprised to learn of a five-thousand dollar donation from Mexico to that wrenchingly needy country.” However, in what he describes as a chin dropping moment, Caldini discovered that actually the donation had been in the other direction; Ethiopia had donated the sum to Mexico to support the city in rebuilding from the major earthquakes that struck at that time. The reason for this, he notes, provides an eloquent validation of the reciprocity rule: “Despite enormous needs prevailing in Ethiopia, the money was being sent because Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia in 1935, when it was invaded by Italy. Quite simply, a half century later, against all countervailing forces, obligation triumphed.” (Caldini, R., Influence, 2007)
While parts of the economy struggle, and while agencies and clients work out how to keep relationships alive, let’s think about how we can create some goodwill now, some obligation, that will work for everyone as things improve.
Agencies – work out what you can offer your clients over and above a financial transaction. Maybe it is some coaching, a free audit, help to facilitate an online workshop, communications ideas, IT health checks or just a sounding board to bounce ideas off. Clients – think how to install some mid-term confidence in your partners by working together on joint recovery plans, scaling ambitions to support both businesses and providing assurances (where any are possible) of the commitment to longer term relationships.
Be creative, pay it forward. What goes around comes around.