April 02, 2018

The importance of reciprocity

‘Reciprocity’ is the daily ability to engage in our relations with others on a ‘give and take’ basis.

It is about accepting what others are able to do for us and letting them know that it is enough; it is also about recognising that others need to take us as we are, too, and accept what we can do for them.

It is quite a ‘grown up’ concept – as adults, we often behave like children, sulk and are easily offended when something happens that is not to our liking, and point the finger when things go wrong. Often we seem to do that more than children do.

The skill of reciprocity appears to develop in early childhood and is one of the key tenets of a healthy, nurturing relationship. It is closely linked to attachment. If we have difficulties in attaching, there is a tendency either for us to ‘use’ others or to allow others to ‘use’ us. In these circumstances the ‘give’ and ‘take’ can disappear and we either do all the giving, or all the taking, with nothing in the middle.

Reciprocity is an important skill to foster and develop in the work place. It enables us to value ourselves even if we get little recognition for what we do, it also helps us to recognise the value of what others bring to the team, even if they have a different approach, and it helps us to understand where problems occur in communication, and how we can resolve them.

The nurturing effect of reciprocity is often lessened or lost altogether through over-competitive environments, the cult of perfectionism, the inability to accept that people can and do make mistakes that can be learned from, the simplistic apportioning of ‘blame’ when things go wrong, the difficult in seeing that we ourselves also slip up and that we may be part of the problem, and the use of un-nuanced language like ‘fault’ and ‘fail’.

But if reciprocity can be encouraged, it can do a lot for our (self)-respect – it helps us to respect ourselves, and ultimately, those that we live and work with. and this has to be a good thing wherever we are – in the workplace, in the home environment or when interacting with friends.

That doesn’t mean that others’ behaviour is always right and we should not challenge or question it – but there are ways of doing this that do not mean we have to feel defensive or aggressive. If we can remain proud of who we are, we can stand up for what we believe is right, safe in the knowledge that we are doing the best we can.

Social media is another area where reciprocity is badly needed – the ability to understand that others have different views from ourselves, that it is not always about ‘winning’ the argument or being ‘right’, and that process is as important as product. Things can go seriously wrong on social media – flame wars, abuse or even worse – when there is a lack of ability to see things from all sides and to consider a spectrum of views.

One useful skill might be to do an inventory of our relationships and ask ourselves what we give and take in each situation. This helps us to develop and adjust our behaviour over time and makes us happier, because we not only accept others, but allow others to accept us too, and ultimately – and perhaps hardest of all – we manage to accept ourselves, as we are, with all our limitations, but still proud of who we are.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Helen Ireland

    Thanks for this, Gerard, very helpful and perhaps something to consider across the University as a whole. Similarly, my favourite translation of the word Ubuntu is “I am what I am through others” and I was very aware of that concept in my working life. I still try to be!

    02 Apr 2018, 18:07


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