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Creating a virtuous circle of giving


Last year I wrote about the Reciprocity Ring, which is a simple construct designed to get people within an organization helping one another out.  Developed by Humax Networks, it involves people gathering together and openly sharing a problem they’re currently facing.  It is the job of the group then to come together to help them solve that problem.

The concept was designed by Professor Wayne Baker, who was kind of enough to contribute to The 8 Step Guide to Building a Social Workplace, and he has recently published some new research into the motivations behind workplace reciprocity.

Baker wanted to test whether people decided to reciprocate good deeds out of a desire to simply help others, ‘pay it forward, or whether it’s because we know it reflects well on ourselves amongst those watching us (our boss for instance), which makes it more likely we’ll receive good deeds in return.

Baker, and his co-author Nathaniel Bulkley, believe these dual motivations haven’t been studied alongside one another, and this was a major motivation behind delving deeper into the psyche or reciprocity.

“We have two different stories here — positive emotion and self-interest — and nobody had tested both in the same study and run a race to see which horse wins,” says Baker, Robert P. Thome Professor of Management and Organizations. “It turns out both horses cross the finish line, but the pay it forward horse wins. The effect of positive emotions on helping others is stronger and longer-lasting than self-interest. That’s a surprise to some, but it also makes people hopeful because it’s a positive story.”

The study saw 125 MBA students split into two groups, both of whom participated in the online version of the Reciprocity Ring for three months. There, they could post requests for help and respond to requests for help made by others.

With it being online, Baker and Bulkley could see exactly who was helping who, and when they were being helped.  It created a detailed web of interactions.

“We didn’t have to rely on self-reporting, and we could go beyond correlation,” says Baker. “We actually have a true causal model.”

The results revealed that self-interest is a strong short-term motivator.  People would help others because they needed something in return.  This pay it forward style helped to sustain reciprocity in the longer-term, as it helped to foster a positive culture of helping.

The implication is that organizations should aim to make it as easy as possible for employees to both ask for help, and subsequently to give it.  The study shows that the more often we receive help ourselves, the more likely we are to offer it to others in return, thus creating a virtuous circle of problem solving.

“We have a scientific study and a proven practical activity,” says Baker. “Sometimes you have effective tools, but not the science, and sometimes it’s vice versa. Here we have both.”

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