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What is the Reciprocity Ring?

What can happen when you ask for what you really want?

What do Bristol-Myers Squibb, IBM, Boeing, Citigroup, Estee Lauder, UPS, Novartis, and GM have in common?

They’ve all use the Reciprocity Ring.

The method was developed by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker and his wife Cheryl at Humax. A group is gathered for the purpose of members asking for something important for them in their personal or professional lives. It typically takes about two and a half hours and the results can be very powerful. The request is put out to the group and participants make connections, offer introductions, contacts or more tangible help with achieving member’s goals. Their website has all the tools you will need to develop the method within your organization. Some of the business benefits listed on their site include:

  • The monetary values of benefits achieved typically exceeds $150,000
  • The time saved by participants typically exceeds 400 hours
  • The Reciprocity Ring builds community, strengthening the network of relationships among participants
  • The Reciprocity Ring is transformative — and informative. Not only will you learn solutions to your issues, but you’ll also learn more about your colleagues and co-workers

But the technique isn’t just for those in a corporate environment. In Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant has outlined this method for individuals and organizations wanting to engage in the act of giving and receiving. As the youngest tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, he has put forth a precisely organized and exceptionally well-crafted book. This book is different because it is evidence-based and because it lays bare the approach to success as a dynamic feature that exists through the exchange that happens between people — not only people looking for higher profits, but those who strive to be successfully engaged in their lives and careers. As the title suggests, this is no ordinary approach. Revolutionary is, indeed, the correct term. (My review of the book is here).

The Reciprocity Ring exercise, described in detail in toward the end of the book, uses the power of a group’s giving capacity to advance or outright bestow the requests from each of its members. It is targeted to help enhance the quality of our whole lives. Grant tells tales of its use and in one instance a pharmaceutical executive saved $50,000 to synthesize an alkaloid because a member in the group offered to do this for free. In another, someone obtained a highly sought-after job at Google. In yet another, specialized garments were made for an individual with a physical handicap.That is the amazing thing about the Reciprocity Ring --the requests — even some far-fetched ones — often granted.

It sounds almost too good to be true, but I twice have had the opportunity to be part of these exercises and have been stunned not only by what people can do to help others, but by what I was able to contribute. Giving can indeed be contagious. So let’s break this down: How does it work?

At the very core of the Reciprocity Ring is a stunning fact drawn from research: We tend to underestimate the number of people who will give.

In a competitive, often zero-sum culture like the United States we imagine that people are “takers,” a term Grant uses to describe people who are self-interested and do not share resources or ideas. In such an environment others are perceived and predicted to be reticent and unforthcoming. In turn, a “giver” is restrained and less conspicuous about their giving. They don’t want to be an outlier and this inhibition generates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But when a group is assembled with the goal of giving, the manacles of perception are removed and replaced by a charitable mood. Research shows that about 90 percent of all giving exchanges at work came about in a response to a direct request for help. Since the culture created by the Reciprocity Ring invites giving, it diminishes the inhibition to give. Participants don’t find themselves embarrassed or constrained.

But there is another series of factors that are unleashed by this technique. When Irvin Yalom did his pioneering work in the 1970s on group therapy he included altruism, vicarious learning and hope among the original therapeutic factors. Yalom’s work on therapeutic factors indicated that when these factors are present, the group is a viable forum for well-being. Therapeutic factors are specific experiences which can occur in many types of groups, and which lead to positive psychological change. Each of these factors defines an influential property that emerges in the group and informs the dynamic. Specifically, the activation of altruism, vicarious learning and hope are the mechanics underneath the Reciprocity Ring.

In altruism members spontaneously help other group members. This helping is usually unsolicited and is the result of an unselfish desire to be of assistance. Helping others without the need to have that help reciprocated is the cornerstone of altruism. What is unique in the reciprocity ring is that someone else’s giving rewards the spontaneous nature of helping. The atmosphere that evolves comes as a result of the confluence of spontaneous altruistic behavior, witnessing this behavior in others (vicarious learning), and the net result of hope that your offer to help others is successful, and that your request is fulfilled.

The Reciprocity Ring is a vehicle for creating an environment where the natural impulse to help can be cultivated and supported. It is a highly worthwhile exercise to learn about and take part in and help create. For more information on resources and how to start your own go to, and Humax

Further reading

Grant, Adam. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. New York: Viking Adult

For information on group process and therapeutic factors:

Tomasulo, D.J. (1998). Action methods in group psychotherapy: Practical
Ann Arbor, MI: Accelerated Development.

Yalom, I., & Leszcz, M. (2005). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy Fifth
New York: Perseus Books.

More from Dan J. Tomasulo PhD., TEP, MFA, MAPP
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