The Triton


Reciprocity influences loyalty, cooperation, productivity


Odds are if one of your friends helped you move, or picked you up from the airport or bought you dinner, you’d be willing to do the same for them at some point in the future.

You might even feel obligated to do so. The feeling of unspoken obligation is called reciprocity and is based on the social nature of humans. Reciprocity, as defined by social scientists, is a situation “in which a person is expected to cooperate with individuals who do something for that person first,” or simply put, to help those who’ve helped you.

When we look at work situations, the idea of reciprocity changes. If people help each other out at work, the feeling to reciprocate is different than if we helped a friend in a social setting. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that we know everyone is paid to be at work, so the feeling of obligation to reciprocate is considerably weaker.

A leader especially may not feel any obligation for reciprocity towards their crew for the hard work being done. They might believe that since everyone is getting paid, they don’t need to do anything else for them.  

A second reason for the difference in the reciprocity mindset at work comes from the knowledge that we fill a particular role on the vessel, be it deckhand, chef, engineer or captain, with specific job duties. When we act from our position, we’re much less likely to feel the need to reciprocate to others.

For example, when the chef asks a deckhand to give him a hand moving a number of boxes from the crew car into the galley after work, the chef won’t necessarily feel obligated to help the deckhand out in a similar way in the future. Because of the roles  people have on a boat, acts of assistance may simply be considered part of the job, not something we need to feel obligated to reciprocate.

Or perhaps the engineers helped the interior crew load a delivery of new dishes into the main salon. Does this mean the interior crew feel obligated to help out in some way in the engine room? Chances are slim.

Finally, let’s consider a situation you may have faced working on a boat when the captain takes the crew out for dinner. Whether the boss is footing the bill or not, did you feel the need or obligation to take the captain out to dinner the following week? You probably didn’t. Part of the reason may be that the dinner was a reward for a job well done, or a way to say thanks for a great trip, or simply to do something nice for the crew.

Either way, the crew probably didn’t feel obligated to reciprocate in this situation.

So what does this mean for leaders? Simply put, don’t unknowingly take advantage of your crew. When our team members go out of their way to help us we need to be willing to go out of our way to help them.

Our life on a vessel creates an environment where we become more than co-workers. Sometimes we become friends or even a family. The social factors in this environment will include helping each other out which in turn leads to the idea of reciprocity. It’s easy to blur the lines between responding as a co-worker rather than as a friend when someone asks something of us.

If the crew are working hard and giving 110 percent, at some level there’s an expectation that they will get something in return for their hard work. That payback may be monetary in the form of a raise or a tip, or it may be a promotion, time off, or any number of other ways that can show gratitude for helping the team be successful.  

If I’m a leader who feels that a monthly paycheck is the only form of repayment necessary for 110 percent effort and never gives back to the people who give of themselves as much as they can, I break an unspoken social norm which can have repercussions in the long run. Paying someone isn’t reciprocating.

Reciprocity deeply influences loyalty, cooperation and productivity. If the leader doesn’t reciprocate, they’ll have a hard time developing the loyalty which encourages people to want to stay in their position. Additionally, if teammates are unwilling to assist one another, the environment of cooperation can be diminished, slowing down tasks that need to get done and ultimately negatively affecting the efficiency and productivity of the team.

Consider how you reciprocate towards your crew and pay attention to the part you play in the equation. When crew see their leader reciprocating, they’ll be more willing to lend a hand when the time comes.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group. Contact him through

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