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Helping a colleague

Law of reciprocation

The law of reciprocation is a strong social norm.  We pay someone a compliment, they feel an obligation to make one in return.  We give someone a small gift, they feel awkward about accepting it, and giving something in return helps them to accept.  We help someone out, they want to help us in return.

One of my favourite fables crops up now and again in the personal development genre, and I’m going to share it again here.  I can’t attribute it, because I don’t know where it originated, nor where I read it.

There was once a traveller, who came to a walled city.  At the entrance to the city, there stood an old man, greeting everyone who approached.  The traveller greeted the old man, and asked, 

‘What are the people like in this city?’  

The old man didn't answer right away and asked the traveller,

‘What are they like where you are from?’  

The traveller replied,

‘Oh, horrible!  Everyone is miserable, no-one has got time to help anyone, they are all selfish!’

The old man replied,

‘That is how you will find the people in this city too’.


The next day, another traveller approached and greeted the old man. He too asked,

‘What are the people like in this city?’  

Again the old man asked,

‘What are they like where you are from?’  

This traveller replied,

‘Oh, I’m from a very friendly place, everyone helps their neighbour, they are very kind to visitors, and always have a smile for everyone they meet.’  

The old man replied,

‘That is how you will find the people in this city too’.

This fable shows it’s not just tangible things we reciprocate, it applies just as much to how we act with people.  If there’s a habit in your workplace of not helping each other, not giving positive feedback, then you may find your behaviour falling in with the norms.  I once did this myself – I worked with a couple of people who were constantly complaining about not being appreciated by their managers, morale was low, that I eventually found myself joining in. This was a while ago, and although I recognised what was happening, I didn’t have the strategies to overcome it at the time.  And unfortunately, after I left, I was remembered as complaining too much – a former manager said the one thing I should work on was being more positive.

It takes someone to break the mould.  To do something good for someone.  Give positive feedback to a colleague, help them out if they need it, or just take a basket of fruit in now and again for everyone to share. Once one person does it, then someone else will reciprocate.  Before you know it more will join in, and the culture of the workplace will shift.

Be the one to instigate the change. It’s powerful.

If you want more tips like this, get the download, ‘Seven things you can do today to make work better’.

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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