Business Psychology: Reciprocity

You can’t always get what you want. Those are the words of Mick Jagger and Kieth Richards. They’re true. People struggle to get what they want. Sometimes, you just have to move on and let it go. 

But let’s say you want to sell something to someone, and they don’t know that they can actually benefit a TON from what you’re selling. For example, what if you had a program that taught people to quit smoking? What if a group of smokers wouldn’t listen to your sales pitch? But if they did stop to listen to your pitch, they might live longer after implementing your smoking cessation practice. You could argue that it would be wrong to NOT try to influence their decision. 

It’s generally difficult to influence people. The problem is confounded when you have no authority over the people you’re trying to influence. For example, a schoolteacher arguably has influence over his or her students by the very nature of the relationship. Senior employees have more influence over more junior ones. But what if a junior team member has an idea that will seriously drum up business? What if it’s a millennial pitching a smoking cessation course to baby boomers? How do these people with little authority sell their ideas?

Psychologists Allan Cohen and David Bradford explained exactly how to gain influence over people even if you have no authority over them in their 2005 article. They explained that you can use reciprocity to get what you want.

You probably already know that reciprocity is what happens when someone does something for someone else, and the receiver feels a sense of indebtedness to the giver. So they might be motivated to return the favor somehow. Reciprocity is what you see when you smile and wave at someone, and they smile and wave back at you in return. 

Another way of thinking about reciprocity is the saying “what goes around comes around.” It’s the belief that people should be repaid for what they do. If you do something good, it will come back to you. If you do something bad, you’ll be punished. You already know all this.

But what you might not know is the mechanics of how you can use reciprocity to get what you want in business— whether that’s more traffic to your site, higher sales, or more customers. If that sounds manipulative, I get it. But stay with me. Or better, read my article on how we can use responsible marketing to nudge people in the right direction. 

Cohen and Bradford (2005) designed the Influence Model to help us get more of what we want using reciprocity. As a business owner, it should be of great interest to you because you can spread your products and services further by using the Influence Model (Cohen & Bradford, 2005).

BUT you need to consider whether it’s appropriate to use the Influence Model. Don’t be slimy. Using advanced psychology on people to try to get them to buy your products should be just as beneficial to the customer as it is to you. If you sell them poor quality products or services using the Influence Model, that reflects extremely poorly on you and you won’t be trusted for future business. Use the infographic below to determine whether the Influence Model is right for your business.

View fullsize

Should You Use Influence ModelShould You Use Influence Model

If what you’re selling is worthy of the Influence Model, you may proceed! If not, improve your product — I mean it!

How to implement the Influence Model (Cohen & Bradford (2005)

A. Assume whoever you’re trying to influence is a potential ally.

If you approach the person you’re trying to influence like they’re an adversary, they’ll probably become one. It’s an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. But if your idea landed on “Influence Away!” in the flowchart above, you truly want to help people. If you want to help them, you probably like them, and they probably like you for wanting to help them. Your offer benefits both you and the potential customer, so consider them a potential friend.

B. Get your priorities straight.

This is often easier said than done. What are your primary vs. secondary aims? Are there certain things that would be nice to have, but aren’t essential? What aspects of the deal are non-negotiable, and where can you afford to bend a little?

Let’s say you’ve landed a meeting with a high-level executive for you to pitch a new idea. In business, relationships are extremely important. You need to think carefully about exactly what you want out of the meeting when proposing a deal with your potential new business partner. Is your primary goal for them to sign a contract saying you can implement your idea? Or are you mainly just trying to maintain/improve your relationship with this person? There’s no right answer. You just need to be clear about what you want.

This step is SUPER important— because if you prioritize personal gains over more important ones, you could get sidetracked and lose the deal and the relationship. For example, if you wanted to sell someone something, but you were focused too much on being seen as more intelligent than the customer, you might lose the sale by appearing arrogant and condescending. Cohen and Bradford (2005) put it nicely: “Would you rather be right or effective?”

C. Determine what drives your ally to care about the things they care about.

Having empathy for the person you’re trying to influence is really going to help you see them more as an ally. Situational factors can influence people’s concerns, needs, and wants even more than their personality, according to Cohen and Bradford (2005). Take into account what drives them. How are they perceived or “measured” by others? For example, a woman might be seen as a good mother if she cooks lots of homemade meals. A boss might “measure” his employees by their productivity and professionalism.

D. Identify relevant currencies for both you and your ally.

Cohen and Bradford (2005) refer to values as “currencies” because they can be exchanged for things people want. For example, if a potential business partner values prestige over likability, assess your own resources. Find out if you can give him something to increase his status. Don’t underestimate yourself. Even if this person already has a great reputation, you may be able to make it even better with your resources. See below for examples.

Common CurrenciesCommon Currencies

Keep in mind that currencies may change depending on the circumstance. What worked once may not work a second time, so you need to reevaluate each time you want to influence your ally. Another thing to keep in mind is that you may be lacking in whatever currency they want. Search hard, but your discrepancy between their values and your available resources may be too great. Thankfully, a frank discussion about it is unlikely to damage your relationship with your ally. 

E. Consider your relationship with your ally.

Do you already know them? If there’s been no previous interactions with them, or even negative interactions with them, you’ll need to establish (or reestablish) trust. For example, if you approach a group of smokers and you have no prior relationship with them, you probably won’t sell your smoking cessation course to them without first demonstrating that you can be trusted. Relate to them in their preferred way, not your preferred way. If you prefer to get right down to business, but they prefer to make small talk first, take things slowly and ease into the sale. 

F. Decide how you are going to approach the deal.

What “currencies” are you going to exchange? Consider the attractiveness of your resources, your ally’s need for those resources, and how badly you want what the ally has. Think about your prior relationship with your ally (and how they want to be approached), and their willingness to take you up on your offer.

G. Don’t sacrifice the relationship just to get the job done.

Whatever task you’re trying to accomplish by using the Influence Model always involves creating or maintaining a relationship with your ally. If you accomplish your short-term goal but you burn bridges with people, your deal was not a 100% success. This can happen easily if people view you as too calculating or manipulative. If you accomplish your task, but leave people feeling duped, don’t expect beneficial long-term relationships with them. At best, they won’t work with you anymore; at worst, they’ll retaliate. Aim to improve (or, at the very least, maintain) your relationship while simultaneously accomplishing the task. 

These guidelines by Cohen and Bradford (2005) are extremely useful for businesses of all kinds. Use them to REALLY benefit the lives of your clients and customers— while also improving your business. 

What do you think? What parts of the Influence Model are valuable for your business? Leave your comments below!

Reference: Cohen, A. R., & Bradford, D. L. (2005). The influence model: Using reciprocity and exchange to get what you need. Journal of Organizational Excellence, 25, 57-80.

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