3 Ways Leaders Can Master the Law of Reciprocity

06/26/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

2015-06-08-1433796825-7105844-GideonKimbrell.jpgGideon Kimbrell is a Miami, FL software engineer and serial entrepreneur. His software engineering work has been praised by companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble and St. Jude Children's Hospital. Born in Montana in a log cabin, he entered university at age 15. By 16 he had programmed his first "hot or not" style website. He is the founder of InList curates the most exclusive international nightlife and charity events.

We've all received business gifts we don't really know what to do with: fruit baskets, engraved laser pointers, glass paperweights, assorted jams and jellies. But every so often, you receive a gift that really makes an impression.

When I was working at Moli, CEO Christos Cotsakos gave me a winning hockey puck from one of the most competitive games the Montréal Canadiens had ever played. The puck was his way of acknowledging my hard work, and the gesture made me want to take up arms and blaze a trail for the company.

My response shows the law of reciprocity at work: When someone does something nice for you, you have an urge to return the kindness. It's the reason why charities send out free address labels and servers scribble a smiley face on your check. Sociologist Phillip Kunz once sent Christmas cards to 600 total strangers as part of a social experiment. More than 200 families reciprocated with cards and letters -- some three or four pages long.

As a leader, you must harness this incredible power. Not only will giving enrich the lives of those around you, but you'll also be rewarded with a sense of fulfillment, charisma and high-performing employees.

The Three Giving Languages All Leaders Must Master

In our society, "giving" is often associated with material things, but there are three types of giving that will make you a more effective leader. First, you must give your time and attention. Being present makes people feel valued, making them more likely to engage with you.

But it can also be beneficial to donate your time. One study found that people who volunteered scored better on nine measures of emotional wellness. It makes sense: When we do something benevolent for others, we feel good about ourselves and exude positive energy. According to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of "The Charisma Myth," presence and warmth are two components of charisma, so it follows that giving your time and attention to others can make you a more magnetic leader.

Next, give purpose and fulfillment. Great leaders give their employees something to follow besides the almighty dollar: a shared purpose. Whether you take your team on volunteer trips or donate a portion of profits to charity, your employees will be happier and more engaged working for a purpose-driven company.

Lastly, give gifts. You don't have to shower people with free iPads and Starbucks gift cards to make them like you, but thoughtful, well-timed gifts like the hockey puck can make a big impact on motivation and morale. A recent study shows that gifts make employees work harder and that they have a stronger impact on performance than money.

How to Be a Great Giver

Doling out expensive gifts always makes an impression, but if you give inappropriately, it won't be the impression you want. Here are a few tips for effective giving:

  1. Examine your intentions. While giving comes with a certain amount of social karma, you should never give purely to obtain a business objective or manipulate others. The recipient will likely see right through your intentions, or you'll start to doubt others' motives. You should be paying it forward or recognizing a positive achievement. Before you give, examine your intentions to ensure you're giving for the right reasons.
  1. Time it perfectly. One of the best times to bestow a gift is right after someone has done something that he or she doesn't expect to be rewarded for. For instance, my company once had an event completely unravel. Although the situation was beyond his control, one colleague went above and beyond to salvage it. To recognize his stellar work, I had a signed memento from the event entertainer made for him. He could have easily felt disheartened by the ordeal, so it was important to show him that his hard work hadn't gone unnoticed.
  1. Limit your giving. Contrary to popular belief, it's entirely possible to give too much -- both in the literal and figurative sense. Dedicating too much of your time and energy to others can leave you feeling drained, and giving too much in a material sense can make people question your intentions -- especially if you're giving to employees of the opposite sex or people you hope to do business with. If you think you might be overdoing it, consider the other person's state of mind.
Giving is a powerful force -- both inside and outside the business world. It fills you with an inviting energy that draws others to you, motivates your employees, and makes you and the recipient happy. Learn the three giving languages, and you'll become a master of reciprocity.