Design by Mansi Gupta

Someone recently asked me about the role of “reciprocity” in communities, encouraging members to help other members in mutual support. I’m actually rather critical of reciprocity in communities and think it’s selling the group’s potential short. Here is why.

Upon the recommendation of a friend I once attended an event by a New York chapter of Business Network International (BNI) in 2013. BNI is a 220’00 member strong networking organization with 8000+ local chapters worldwide (source). It happened on an early Tuesday morning in a Midtown Manhattan conference room with a thick grey carpet. A large room had been setup with 40 people sitting at tables arranged in a big square, facing each other. And then, each person in the circle stood up, and said three things: 1) what they are looking for (usually it was sales referrals) 2) how they can help other people’s requests from today’s meeting 3) giving gratitude to people who had helped them with introductions and referrals since the last meeting. It’s been a while, but the way I remember it is that every time there was a match, the person giving a referral or promising to make an introduction would write his contacts and what she/he would do on an index card and then pass that to the receiver.

This is not the BNI meeting I went to, but it looked and felt very similar in setup and style: “Thursday morning meeting of BNI Top Tier at Lake Mohawk Country Club” via here (photo by Fred White).

People there were clearly excited. This system of referrals and accountability was working for them. They were supporting each other.

Yet I left feeling horrified and never went back. It felt so transactional, so outcome-driven, so not community.

For me, this has always stood as a primary example of what a group would look like when it is strictly reciprocity based.

There are different ways for people to show up in a group

My thinking in this regard was shaped by Adam Grant’s book “Givers & Takers” where he identifies 3 different types of personal interaction styles:

  • The givers: the people who by default give and support the people around them, without expecting anything in return.
  • The takers: the people who tend to ask more than they give in their relationships. They are highly transactional and dangerous for a community.
  • The matchers: their relationships are based on keeping a balance between giving and taking. If you help them, they will help you. If they help you, they expect something in return.

However, I don’t assume that people will always show up in the same way across different groups. Matchers won’t always be matchers. Instead, I have observed that people model their behavior according to what they think the group expects from them.

Therefore, groups that cultivate an environment of reciprocity encourage people to behave more like matchers. On the one hand, if someone does something nice for me in the reciprocal community, I want to give back, therefore creating more value for the group and further incentivizing people to contribute. That’s great. On the other hand, if I give and contribute, I expect something in return. And what if that doesn’t happen?

And that’s where reciprocity becomes a slippery slope, because it encourages transactional behavior, not long-term relationship building.

The missed potential in reciprocity based groups

I never went back to BNI, because:

  • Even though I could imagine it to be valuable, it felt so transactional.
  • I didn’t feel like I got to connect with anyone beyond the transactional exchange. I didn’t make a human connection, only outcome-based interactions.
  • It felt like a work event, it felt like networking.
  • I didn’t feel like other people were interested in me as a human being, they were interested in my assets, in what I could bring to the table. That made me show up in a particular way, only showing my best self, but surely not my whole self.
  • People’s “generosity” in opening up their own networks had a clear purpose: they wanted to be seen as a generous person, so that someone else would then help them with their next request. The dimension of interaction felt so short-term.
  • This didn’t feel like a group that I wanted to belong to, I didn’t feel safe, it didn’t feel like those were my peers. Instead, I felt that those were simply smart people with lots of assets helping each other. That’s so different.
  • All the focus was on creating value, but I didn’t get a sense for any group values.

From reciprocity to generosity

Unsurprisingly, I believe that reciprocity-based groups sell themselves short. And that strong groups don’t focus on reciprocity, but instead cultivate a sense of generosity and abundance.

I will need some more time and a separate post to dissect my thoughts on generosity (and how to instill it), but here are my starting points:

  • Generous groups create much more value, because people support others out of genuine reasons, because they truly care about the other person.
  • This builds both strong relationships and abundance.
  • The difference is in the time horizon: generous groups suck at creating short-term value, but in the long-term I’m convinced they outperform transactional reciprocity groups.
  • There are additional dimensions to generous groups that reciprocal groups don’t have: learning from each other, inspiring each other, providing a place of belonging, emotional support, not just material support, seeing the world through someone else’s lens, …

What do you think about this? Does this distinction between reciprocity and generosity make sense to you? Curious and grateful to hear your thoughts on reciprocity vs generosity! Thank you!