Sept. 19, 2013
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
Feedback takes many forms. Equity, blame versus problem solving, and dealing with jerks provide feedback that tell people how the organization works and handles difficulties. In addition, there are the explicit feedback systems:
There is the feedback that people get that tells them how, and whether, the organization views them as people. This is feedback about the nature of the relationship between members and the organization as a whole.
There is feedback that goes up the organizational hierarchy, informing those higher up about conditions, the market, problems in the organization, and successes. This system often fails.
There is feedback in the form of performance reviews. Done properly, which rarely happens, performance reviews are very powerful and valuable to the organization: they provide a route by which members of the organization can grow, develop their skills, and build their status. They provide an important connection to the organizational narrative.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that every culture has a social rule around favors: when someone does something for you, helps you, or gives you a gift of some sort, you are expected to reciprocate in some way. People who do not reciprocate, that is, those who take but do not give, are viewed as greedy moochers, and are often shunned by the rest of the society. Similarly, as Schein observes, those who give help but never accept it, are often viewed with suspicion or resentment.
In an organizational setting, people want to understand what sort of relationship they have with their coworkers, their boss, and with the more nebulous construct that is the “organization.” Reciprocity is one of the ways people explore that relationship. How the team and the organization handle reciprocity thus becomes a proxy for the relationship.
In early stage teams, people might refuse to accept help in order to avoid a feeling of indebtedness or incompetence, or might attempt to help another in the hopes of receiving help later or building status. In fact, for the team to be considered just and fair, there needs to be that mutual exchange of helping behavior in the early stages. Eventually, as the team develops, the mutual exchange of favors turns into a more abstract helping network in which team members automatically give and receive help as necessary to the accomplishment of the task at hand. It’s no longer about the individual ledger; rather, it’s the confidence that we will all engage in helping behaviors for the good of all of us. The trust that enables that to happen comes from demonstrating reciprocity in the early stages of team development.
Similarly, when members of an organization put forth an extra effort or engage in pro-organizational behavior outside the normal expectations, they expect that the organization will, in some way, acknowledge and repay their contribution. When the organization refuses to do that, or, even worse, treats the exceptional effort as “just part of the job,” this creates the image of someone who takes and takes but gives only grudgingly, if at all. For example, when employees work long hours or weekends in order to meet a deadline, they are sacrificing their personal time for the good of the organization. This is not, or at least should not be, a routine event. If it is, you have some serious problems!
How the organization responds to that sacrifice provides feedback on the relationship: reciprocity of some sort says that you are a valuable person; failure to provide reciprocity says that you are a tool or a slave, that the boss is selfish, that the organization does not value its members, or all of the above.
I’ve met many people who tell me that long hours are part of the job, and ask why they should thank or reward people for doing their jobs. The reason is simple: reciprocity is a proxy for the relationship, and the relationship determines trust. Without trust, motivation, team development, and leadership all start to break down.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in late 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.