Collaboration and reciprocity

Share this page

Written by Dee Gray on 1 February 2013 in Features

Dee Gray examines the relationship between the two

When the Stranger says: 'What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?' What will you answer? 'We all dwell together to make money from each other.' or 'This is a community.'?" 1

Some years ago I was employed by the Welsh Government; my job involved taking government policies and helping put them into practise in the real world. The 'real world' in this instance was the public and third sectors in Wales and the policies I was trying to implement sought to address the need to work collaboratively together in order to achieve higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness in a climate of reducing financial resources. The reducing financial resources was not about small-scale change: the Welsh Government had set targets of gaining a dividend of up to £300m a year by 2008 and at least £600m a year by 2010 through more efficient ways of working.

The strategy documents that underpinned the proposed changes didn't mess about with jargon and highbrow dialogue; instead they spoke of efficiency as having "a moral imperative"2.

The strategy resulted in Welsh Government actions that included restructuring administrative and commissioning services so that they were shared and setting up Local Service Boards that were peopled by representatives from across the Welsh public and third sectors. Partnership working included relationships between police and fire services, health and local authorities; these new and developed working arrangements were envisaged as a means of increasing managerial capacity and service improvement.

Reviews of the Welsh Government's strategic reforms identified many obstacles to achieving collaborative partnerships; the organisations that were consulted were frank about competitiveness, silo working and a culture reinforced by performance management constrained by individual ambition. Bringing about productive collaborations would not be easy but a catalyst that drove the strategies forward harnessed the desires of public and third sector employees to provide a better service for the people of Wales. These desires were enshrined in the concept of the 'citizen model', which sat at the heart of reforms and engaged reformers in new collaborations with new colleagues defined as the citizens of Wales.

I became a 'foot soldier' to the reforms. The work was challenging but I have always been an exponent of collaboration and am passionate about, and proud of, the public services we have in the UK.

During my time with the Welsh Government I brought together people who had never worked together before: some of them were in the same organisation and would often be surprised that they had this colleague literally a ward, a department, an office or a phone call away but had never heard of them. These new teams collaborated on citizen-centred projects that harnessed the ideas and experience of all involved to create a better public service; some teams I brought together dealt with the 'wicked issues' of reform that included redundancy and finding ways to ensure remaining staff could and would still be committed to the workload that was left to them.

My work was often frustrating; at times I would walk away from meetings having discovered that a completed piece of research would benefit another organisation but, because those in the meeting could not see immediate benefit in sharing, they simply refused to do so. Although the Welsh Government had pursued a legal requirement of collaboration from public bodies, this seemed of little use in my day-to-day dealings with senior executives, managers and clinicians. What was required was a mind-shift away from a 'them and us' silo mentality towards one of true collaboration and reciprocity.

There are many inspiring examples of this: Wikipedia is perhaps known to most of us but there are others that perhaps occupy some part of our memory, for example the 24 hours of ceasefire in the trenches during World War One3.

For us to achieve collaborative practice, we often have to reframe the boundaries to which we are used. This requires us to think beyond ourselves and our own needs. In order to 'oil the works' of collaboration, it is worth exploring reciprocity for it is through reciprocity that we can ensure that collaborative contribution is equally valued.

Reciprocity is considered to be a type of pro-social behaviour (another being altruism) in which reciprocal people attract others of the same ilk4. For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to distil reciprocity to these key principles:

  • it can involve two or more people (or non-humans)5
  • there is an expectation that there will be a fair exchange6
  • participants run the risk of giving and not receiving so that they come into contact with what are known as "free riders"7
  • trust is important to establish and maintain reciprocal arrangements8
  • "free riders" are often "punished" by being ostracised by those who are prepared to reciprocate9.

One initiative I was involved in during my time with the Welsh Government was the establishment of a public sector coaching collaborative. The Welsh Government had realised that coaching would have a positive impact on public and third sector employees so began, cohort by cohort, to establish a tranche of coaching professionals who would reciprocate the provision of their coaching qualifications for coaching their public and third sector colleagues. When I left the Welsh Government the experience of facilitating and being part of a national movement in collaborative and reciprocal practices stayed with me; I was no longer part of the public sector coaching collaborative so I decided to find some like-minded individuals and start one up, and in 2009 we launched the Coaching Network10.

Given that the economic climate in which the Coaching Network was set up had worsened since my time in the Welsh Government, I had hoped that the notion of reciprocal exchange in a supportive learning community would appeal. Some of the initial and continuing conversations are about explaining what reciprocity is and how it provides the momentum and resources for the Coaching Network to function.

Conversations often start with the economy and that we are sinking towards a triple dip recession11, I point out that we can still find ways in which to have meaningful lives if we could share our skills, knowledge and resources. At this point many people think I am talking about volunteering, no I am not; some people think I am offering them work, no I am not. Slowly but surely people begin to see that the opportunities reciprocity brings include being able to access or share resources that are underemployed with the result that they are not left to waste.

From this first 'aha' moment, we try to inculcate the reality of interdependence12. In essence, this boils down to a 'we are all in this together' mentality and the principles of reciprocity hold true that those who contribute the most receive the most13.

Although we started off as a coaching collaborative, the Coaching Network is now a much broader church and membership includes HR, admin, marketing and PR, academic, health and social work, educators and therapists. The coaches are from different backgrounds - besides executive coaching there are life and sports coaches too.

Collaboration through reciprocity is evident in business practice and is often seen in 'tit for tat' activities in which individuals may provide a service that helps the other in return for something that they need. Generating a culture of reciprocity can also extend to business customers and, in order for customers to feel valued, businesses offer loyalty incentives (Tesco Clubcard vouchers are a good example of this)14. Reciprocity in teaching and learning often takes the form of a learning exchange whereupon all learners (this includes the tutor/trainer) support each other's learning in order to have the benefit of a shared learning environment15.

This principle can transcend the 'classroom' and move into the reciprocal organisation so one department (for example the research department) supports another (for example the production department); in society the principles of reciprocity move outwards so that we have reciprocal organisations working towards common goals. Examples of this include the British Council conference programme Going Global, which encourages reciprocal partnerships with educational providers16, and local authorities/councils that ask for reciprocal service level agreements, policies/ protocols with external providers of services in order to ensure resilience is built into business practice. Public sector organisations too have long-standing reciprocal arrangements in order to manage disasters (for example those that operate between the environment agency and emergency services).

Given that all of these good examples exist and that reciprocity appeals to the human condition, all we need to do is to create a system in which it can flourish. Research conducted into what sort of systems humans align with has demonstrated that those that allow punishment of non-co-operation and "free riding" are preferred17. For employers, it is worth noting that, to establish a psychological contract that includes reciprocity with new employees, it is best to get in early as this occurs in the socialisation process18.

Constructing a system that ensures everyone feels valued for their contribution is not just an imperative in our financial climate, it contributes towards reciprocal sustainability. Expressing value may be in the form of recognition for contribution and often a simple thank you, given privately and publicly, will do19. Ensuring people feel connected to those they have reciprocal relationships with contributes to what is known as 'flow' in the reciprocal system20; this is because a meaningful exchange is created and this stimulates activity.

Most economic models are perpetuated on self-interested wealth accumulation and reciprocity does not rule out the 'what's in it for me' mentality. Instead, it acknowledges this to be a powerful driving force of human nature but balances this with 'what is in it for you'21. Reciprocity often results with responding like-with-like so a kind act will receive a kind one in return and an unkind one an unkind one, although Roberts identified that "a generous reputation could pay off in the long term"22.

When constructing a more formal reciprocal system, arrangements can be made in which one person gives help, the receiver helps another, who then helps another, with help eventually coming back to the original helper. While research has shown this to be effective23, most of us are aware of charitable giving in which the reciprocal return often amounts to the 'feel good' factor of helping others. This latter has now become big business for charities such as Oxfam, which arranges for you to give to others by giving what would ordinarily be their Christmas present to someone else. Giving a gift of helping others enables others to see you as a 'good person' and opens them up to a form of economic altruism that they may not have previously contemplated24.

This also amounts to a form of self-publicising of good deeds, which certainly brings reciprocal rewards. For a bigger example of this, take a look at the TED and TEDx websites; on them you will find a whole host of inspirational people who talk about truly worthy and worthwhile endeavours and who, by talking publicly about their innovations and ideas, draw like-minded people to them in reciprocal exchange25. Such large-scale co-operation and collective action is said to function on indirect reciprocity26 and comes close to a sense of community.

Bringing people to work collaboratively in times of economic crisis is not an easy task as, when there is less to go round, human nature can revert to protectionism. But reciprocity does not ask people to give things away for no return and it is because there is the potential of a fair exchange that reciprocity is conducive to collaboration. Perhaps, with a little practise, we will be able to answer Eliot' s question about whether we care about a shared future together and say yes, we are not just working collaboratively in partnership, we are also a community.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Dr Dee Gray is the owner of L&D provider grays. She can be contacted on +44 (0)7717 762732 or via


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.

Related Articles

7 October 2022

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay offer their advice on maintaining a positive outlook in challenging times

5 October 2022
A selection of the latest news, research and stories from the world of HR, talent, learning and organisational development as selected by the TJ editorial team.
3 October 2022

TJ caught up with Joe Udwin, chief technology officer at Questionmark to check out how UK CTOs can help to close the IT skills gap?

Related Sponsored Articles

14 January 2022

Anthony Santa Maria on how personalised learning builds future-ready workforces

5 March 2018

Managers back apprenticeships for workers of all ages as a way to overturn the long-term employer underinvestment in skills, according to a new survey of 1,640 managers by the Chartered Management...

7 July 2022

Harper Wells announced as new chief compliance officer at Learning Pool