The Power of Reciprocity


I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude;
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

—John Drinkwater (1882-1937), British poet and dramatist, in a poem titled Reciprocity

Reciprocity refers to a mutual relationship or action whereby something is given or felt between two or more people. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word as “a situation or relationship in which two people or groups agree to do something similar for each other, to allow each other to have the same rights, etc.” The Oxford Dictionary defines reciprocity as “the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, especially privileges granted by one country or organization to another. And the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines the word as “the relation or policy in commercial dealings between countries by which corresponding advantages or privileges are granted by each country to the citizens of the other.”

Reciprocity comes from the Latin root “reciprocus,” which means “moving backward and forward.” Indeed, in navigation, the word refers to a course that is 180 degrees to a given a direction, that is, back. As such, reciprocity is at the heart of an age-old moral law of action and reaction called the Golden Rule. For many Americans, the Golden Rule sums up the essence of Christian ethics—the virtue of charity in thought in action. Like reciprocity, the Golden Rule proposes that we do unto others as would be done by us.

An entrepreneur can practice reciprocity simply by showing empathy toward customers or clients. Ask them about their day, their families, their vacations. Be alert to their upcoming anniversaries. And if you know nothing about them—or feel they don’t have the time to talk—smile at them frequently. (Never underestimate the power of a genuine smile.)

Put reciprocity to work with your employees as well. Too often, they feel underappreciated—and crave a pat on the back or a kind word. Treat your employees like humans. They are the face of your company. If you’re mistreating them, chances are they’re treating your customers the same way.

Another way of initiating a reciprocal relationship with employees is to tell them what they need to do to excel at their work to get a raise. As a general rule, every entrepreneur should specifically reward good behavior and punish bad conduct.

It’s important to recognize reciprocity in business because, as the very least, the idea embodies the way civilized people treat each other. Yet reciprocity isn’t necessarily self-evident. Rather, it must be acquired and cultivated—as every patient parent who has instilled the value into a misbehaving child knows.

Reciprocity is so important that it can make or break a business. That’s because without reciprocity, it’s almost impossible for a business, especially a new one, to establish rapport and trust with others, whether they be customers, business partners, suppliers, bankers or financiers. By being honest, helpful and friendly in business dealings—in a word, by being empathetic—an entrepreneur wins people’s trust, which, in turn, boosts his or her credibility.

I’m always surprised how some of the biggest corporations can sometimes be so dumb in practicing reciprocity. Take Taco Bell, which launched the hugely popular Doritos taco in 2012 and is reported to have netted more than $1 billion in sales from that single item. The idea for the dish appears to have come from Todd Mills, an Arkansas dad who started a Facebook campaign in 2009, urging Taco Bell to make a Doritos taco. Mills died in 2013—totally uncompensated for his efforts, if not also his original idea. The strange thing is that Taco Bell reportedly acknowledged the support that Mills gave the corporation. Would a $30,000—or even a $300,000—check to Mills have hurt the company’s bottom line? Of course not—and while Taco Bell executives may well have felt inclined to cut Mills (or his family) a check, you can be sure that some corporate lawyers put a dampener on their generosity.

Generosity—or charity—is the most important ingredient of reciprocity. Let me give you an example. Recently, as we were closing the Zankou store in West Hollywood for the night, two men knocked at the door. It was 11:10 p.m.—we close at 11—and I told the duo that we were done for the night. But they begged to be let in, so I opened the door.

The men were from Iraq—or so they said. I told them we didn’t have much left to eat—just some roasted chicken and a few other items. They ordered a family meal and finished eating by around 11:45 p.m. As they were leaving, I thanked them and asked if they would be kind enough to give us a positive review on Yelp. “That’s the nicest thing you can do for a business these days,” I said. “It means a lot to us.”

To my utter amazement, the customers refused. They didn’t say as much, but their body language suggested that would not write a review. One of the men shrugged at me as if to say, Well, we paid you and we don’t need to do anything extra. I found that disappointing, not least because I thought I had gone out of my way to let the two hungry customers in and give them food.

In effect, I had opened the door to a classic reciprocal deal. But the two men lacked the generosity to reciprocate. I was reminded of a story about Jesus from the Scriptures in which Jesus heals ten sick men. One of them returns to thank Him—nine of the others never come back. In a sense, these were customers of Jesus. And He decided to further reward the one who returned. “Go forth my son—your sins are also forgiven,” Jesus said (or something to that effect).

Here is the full verse:

Luke 17:11-19   New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Heals Ten Men With Leprosy

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

What does that teach us? To me, it teaches us the value of reciprocity—the sheer wisdom of it. Reciprocity is nothing more or less than the universal law of karma, in which right action is rewarded and wrongdoing punished. We live in a world of never-ending wants and desires. In such a world, it’s hard to remember that giving can be the greatest gift because it’s in giving that we truly receive.


Copyright 2014, Dikran Iskenderian. No version of this blog may be reproduced in any form without the author’s written consent. This blog represents the author’s views only and may not necessarily represent the views of Zankou Chicken, its board, its associates and employees, managers, and customers. Please do not reproduce without permission. Thank You.

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