The asymmetry of give and take



Boaz Keysar

The Great Recession has led many of my executive coaching clients to reduce 401(k) contributions, celebrations, work hours (through furloughs), and cut other employee perqs. These leaders often explain the reductions as prudent adjustments to avoid layoffs. Employees, unfortunately, are likely to react by becoming less trusting and cooperative with their employers, as this new research illustrates.


Although people reciprocate kindnesses proportionately, slings and arrows prompt bullets and grenades.


By Laura Putre


“Even something that is not so strong as a vindictive action—something simply perceived as a negative act,” [Professor Boaz] Keysar says, “escalates quickly.”

The researchers paired up participants for several games of give and take. In one a designated leader decided how much of $100 to give to a partner. In another, leaders decided how much of $100 to take from their partners. … Subjects in the study also consistently reacted better to receiving something than to having it taken from them, even when the gift left them with less money, say $30 instead of $50.

Leaders, however, thought they were being fair … “They did not anticipate,” Keysar says, “that the other person was going to perceive them as doing something negative.” What’s more, he discovered that as the game wore on, each successive round saw partners grabbing more and more as they alternated the taking role. Perceiving the takers as selfish, the participants became less generous.

How to avoid the retribution? This paper doesn’t say. Other research suggests laying out the facts for employees and letting them design the adjustments. People are much more supportive of changes they have helped create.



See also, on this blog, step-by-step conversation instructions with video here:
The Conversation Contract.