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Creating a Supportive Culture Through Communication Reciprocity

The more often you check-in with employees, the more they will feel supported and respond to what you say.


It’s called the Norm of Reciprocity and it’s here to remind us that our employees are people. Letting your employees know what’s going on and how they are doing, whether it’s on behalf of your organization or you personally, builds a supportive workplace culture. The reason this works? Because when we feel supported we are likely to reciprocate. Take the extreme example cited by social psychologist Robert Cialdini of when, in 1985, the then-crippled and suffering nation of Ethiopia decided it should muster up humanitarian aid money to send to Mexico following a devastating earthquake because Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia after it was invaded by Italy… in 1935 — 50 years prior. Extreme? Perhaps. Astonishing? Yes, but not surprising in light of the research on reciprocity, which shows up everywhere, extreme and mundane.

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours

As any monkey will show you, when you do something nice for someone their response will likely be nice as well — that’s called positive reciprocity. For example, we know that when employees feel cared for by their supervisors and valued by their company, they reciprocate through increased job performance and greater commitment to their employer. Now, sometimes it takes effort to be “nice,” and sometimes “nice” doesn’t fit the bill. Think of giving criticism, which, even when constructive, is inherently a less pleasant experience for the recipient than receiving praise. But what if the criticism is explicitly framed as being driven by the desire to support and develop someone? The goal here is to find ways to be as positive and supportive as possible. You should set the expectation that feedback is a gift and deliver that gift.

Frequent is the New Annual

Think about the becoming-outdated evaluation process known as the annual review…would you say it is more likely to be chock full of broad observations (e.g., “You’ve been a good team player this past year”) or specific examples of behaviors (e.g., “When you voluntarily stayed late to help your two co-workers on the cloud software project, you exemplified a strong team member”). The latter style, which is more likely to happen via frequent evaluations and informal check-ins (see: Adobe), is where performance management systems are moving. To support this paradigm shift, performance management technology is similarly trending in the direction of frequent, meaningful conversations rather than annual ratings. Most importantly, there are clear beneficial outcomes that reinforce the case to adopt these trends. Employees feel supported when they receive feedback — because it acknowledges that you notice their work and shows your investment in them — so why not make opportunities to show them this support on a regular basis?


Employees feel supported when they receive feedback — because it acknowledges that you notice their work and shows your investment in them.


A Two-Way Street

We’ve discussed reciprocity in detail, so let’s finish with the other half of the concept: “Norm” (no, not this Norm). To grow and maintain a workplace norm you need to integrate the new standard into your culture, which means you need buy-in from everybody. One of the most direct ways to get buy-in from employees around positive communication and frequent feedback is to allow them to check-in with you — a chance for employees to be supportive in return for your support. Each opportunity that employees have to speak up and share their feedback is another chance to reinforce a culture that values ideas and input. And remember, supportive responses will incentivize them to keep coming back to you to share more.

“When you ask for feedback, you create generosity in the system and it explodes exponentially.” - Dean Carter, Patagonia CHRO

If you have a great system in place for giving feedback to or receiving feedback from employees, let us know in the comments!


To talk more with Daniel about how to build supportive workplace cultures, you can shoot him an email at Daniel@IMshore.com

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