Mindful Agility

Incremental Reciprocity Builds Successful Relationships

May 02, 2023 Daniel Greening Season 2 Episode 5
Incremental Reciprocity Builds Successful Relationships
Mindful Agility
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Mindful Agility
Incremental Reciprocity Builds Successful Relationships
May 02, 2023 Season 2 Episode 5
Daniel Greening

Discover the secret behind successful partnerships in this episode on incremental reciprocity. Start with a small task without expecting anything in return, and ask your partner to match your effort. As you both grow, this technique helps measure reliability and build trust. Famous duos like Lennon-McCartney and Oprah Winfrey-Gayle King used this method to achieve greatness. Enhance your teamwork and friendships by trying this approach yourself. Give it a shot and transform your connections!

One more example of how mindfulness and agile skills help you succeed, from the Mindful Agility podcast.



  • Daniel Greening, host, agile consultant, software executive
  • Mirela Petalli, co-host, meditation guide, and neurocritical nursing instructor
  • Dan Dickson, business coach, executive and management consultant


Show Notes Transcript

Discover the secret behind successful partnerships in this episode on incremental reciprocity. Start with a small task without expecting anything in return, and ask your partner to match your effort. As you both grow, this technique helps measure reliability and build trust. Famous duos like Lennon-McCartney and Oprah Winfrey-Gayle King used this method to achieve greatness. Enhance your teamwork and friendships by trying this approach yourself. Give it a shot and transform your connections!

One more example of how mindfulness and agile skills help you succeed, from the Mindful Agility podcast.



  • Daniel Greening, host, agile consultant, software executive
  • Mirela Petalli, co-host, meditation guide, and neurocritical nursing instructor
  • Dan Dickson, business coach, executive and management consultant


[00:00:00] Cold Open

[00:00:06] Podcast Intro

[00:00:06] Daniel Greening: Welcome to the Mindful Agility podcast. If you're just joining us, this podcast helps you develop two uncommon skills, mindfulness and agile. These skills have delivered social and corporate success to those who understand them. Neither mindfulness nor agile are intuitive. Otherwise everyone would be a lot more successful. But if you develop those skills, and we're here to help you, you'll have a leg up.

[00:00:35] Episode Intro

[00:00:35] Daniel Greening: Today, we're going to show you techniques to build great partnerships with incremental reciprocity.

When approaching a potential partner, and aren't all our colleagues and friends potential partners, you need to figure out if your time and effort will be rewarded. 

We describe a technique that has worked well for a lot of successful people called incremental reciprocity. 

I'm Dan Greening. 

[00:01:00] Dan Dickson: I'm Dan Dickson.

James Baldwin, the author of "Nobody Knows my name," actually had a perfect quote for this. He said, "allegiance after all, has to work two ways and one can grow weary of an allegiance, which is not reciprocal."

[00:01:14] Daniel Greening: yeah. There've been many times when I've over invested in a partnership and then realized the person I was working with was not quite as invested, not quite as committed. And so ultimately that effort was wasted. 

[00:01:30] Dan Dickson: Especially on the personal side, emotions can take over, this approach helps you behave more rationally, let's put it that way , in terms of trying to build a relationship

[00:01:39] Daniel Greening: It's not like the person who doesn't reciprocate is as a bad person. It might just be that they don't have time or they don't have the skills to properly reciprocate. Right. 

[00:01:51] Dan Dickson: Or it could be the priority of the relationship. Talking about specifically about this project, I know this is basically a major effort on your part, and I've got other projects going, so I'm not always available when perhaps you need me to be. 

 I wanna make sure that I am carrying my own weight, if you will.

[00:02:07] Daniel Greening: Hm. But I really appreciate that you carry some weight. I'm working full time on this, but you can't, or, you know, it's not your priority, right? But that's cool. I know where my collaborators' limits are and that helps me a lot. Because I can gauge how much they can contribute and can gauge my expectations too. 

[00:02:33] Dan Dickson: Yeah. But the important point there is that, when I make a commitment, I have to honor that. And that's part of this relationship too.

That's a basic understanding behind reciprocity and for any kind of relationship to actually work is that yes, people may have different priorities. They may have different time allowances , but once you make a commitment to deliver, you have to do that. And if it doesn't come back, then back to your point, doesn't mean they're a bad person. It's just that the relationship has gone as far as it can, which isn't a bad thing, you just know where it is.

[00:03:03] Daniel Greening: I've grown to realize though, that you can trust someone who doesn't meet their commitments. If on a regular basis, they make a commitment, they say they will deliver, and they deliver half of what they committed to. You start realizing that they're going to contribute half of what they committed to and that's actually trustable in a way? 

[00:03:30] Dan Dickson: I can need to think about that. I actually am not comfortable with that. if it's an occasional basis, that's one thing. But if somebody consistently makes promises and then doesn't deliver, or half delivers or whatever, I think that you need to reset the commitment to something where they can deliver against it.

[00:03:47] Techniques

[00:03:47] Daniel Greening: Let's talk about the incremental reciprocity technique. It works like this. 

You start first. Make a small achievable commitment toward a shared goal without expecting reciprocation, and deliver. Then ask your partner to commit and deliver equivalent work back. If they match you, make a bigger commitment. Keep upping the ante until someone fails to commit or deliver. Through this approach, you can measure the reliability of colleagues, friends, lovers, and yourself. If your partner can't match you, you have learned their limit inexpensively, so be gracious and friendly. 

[00:04:34] Dan Dickson: That makes the point really well, effectively you keep escalating, you keep incrementally increasing the, depth of the relationship, until basically it meets its limit.

And that's fine. Just as long as you understand those limits. And perhaps that's the point you were trying to make with half making a commitment that that may be a different way of saying the same thing. 

[00:04:52] Daniel Greening: Yeah. You know, people's self perceptions are often wrong. At least my self perceptions are often wrong. So I might make a commitment. And then, actually, to be honest with you, I look back at my commitments to the Mindful Agility project. I think I commit, and then I deliver about 60% of what I committed to. 

And that's data, right. That helps understand what I can really deliver. Does that make sense? 

[00:05:22] Dan Dickson: Yeah, it makes sense that I'm surprised you said that I would, I would've put your, uh, commitment, , success rate much higher than that.

[00:05:27] Daniel Greening: Look at our velocity. It's always like 60%. We commit to 20 points. And then we actually deliver 12. Sometimes it's 40%. 

[00:05:40] Dan Dickson: I suppose that's true. 

[00:05:41] Daniel Greening: And a lot of it's me, right. 

[00:05:43] Dan Dickson: For example, you know, the meeting today, you asked me to read a little bit of background. I committed to do that and I did it. And I did show up on time.

If I had had a conflict or something like that, I would've made it clear that I could not have made this commitment to you. So I think I may be thinking a little bit more tactically.

[00:06:00] Daniel Greening: Hm. It is true that committing to meetings and showing up on time is really. It's respect for the other person, right? Like if you don't show up on time and you don't let them know you're going to be late, what happens is they sit around and they wonder what's going on. And so that anxiety, which we have talked about in a previous episode of the Mindful Agility podcast, that uncertainty is more disturbing than not having something delivered on time. So. That's an interesting nuance there. 

[00:06:34] Dan Dickson: I think that's reasonable.

[00:06:35] Daniel Greening: You know, this incremental reciprocity idea, many successful partnerships followed this pattern, including founders of Airbnb, who worked together and incrementally ratcheted up their contribution, Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King who have long been collaborating and many more. 

John Lennon and Paul McCartney from the Beatles, met in 1957, when Lennon's band, the Quarrymen, performed at St. Peter's church in Liverpool. McCartney joined the band. McCartney and Lennon began alternately contributing ideas and tunes. Lennon explored new sounds. McCartney made melodies. Lennon looked inward and McCartney told stories. They alternated as lead vocalists. They edited each other's work. They were backup vocalists for each other. As their collaboration deepened, they credited their work as Lennon McCartney. It remains unusual today that collaborators share credit. It's interesting. They continued collaborating after the Beatles broke up. Their incremental reciprocity grew into world-class success for both of them. 

[00:07:55] Dan Dickson: Yeah, that's a great story and I'm attuned to that being a musician myself. You hear so many dustups in the musical world about who's responsible for which song and things like that. The fact that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were able to basically have this shared relationship.

And I think the way this characterizes it very well is that Lennon looked inward. McCartney was the sort of the music guy in general. I mean, it did go back and forth, but they were comfortable with basically being a team and, being listed that way.

But it didn't come from nowhere.

It's like you point out, it was incremental. It started, as you know again, back in 1957.

[00:08:29] Daniel Greening: Exactly. And I think about that with respect to my business relationships and virtually everything I do. I do contribute a little more usually than others, but I'm trying to see what comes back when I do that.

So, for example, if I'm in a household, I might cook dinner a few times. If the people I'm cooking dinner for, never cooked dinner for me, or don't really contribute anything else to me. I kind of taper off on that kind of commitment. 

But if they do actually reciprocate, if they do cook dinner for me or do something else. That can blossom into a nice, comfortable relationship. Right? 

[00:09:11] Dan Dickson: Mm-hmm. 

[00:09:12] Daniel Greening: So, do you have any experiences with reciprocation in business? 

[00:09:17] Dan Dickson: Oh boy. Um, you know, this is another, eye-opener as I go with you on the Mindful Agility journey. 

Looking back, I can think of a lot of examples where somebody comes to work with you or for you or whatever. And you start sort of testing each other in terms of you know, level of trust and things like that. And will this person actually deliver on what you expect them to do? And that gets into almost a whole nother conversation because it's not just the nitpicks in terms of, okay, did this person, you know, submit this report on time? It's more in terms of being able to agree on objectives, and you need to build into that over a period of time and have enough respect for the person to understand that okay, they may go about a task, uh, or meeting an objective in a very different manner than you would, but you have to be able to trust that, and that doesn't come overnight.

You have to build towards that.

[00:10:09] Daniel Greening: There's another factor that plays into this. Reciprocity means that you can think about things from the perspective of the other person. That leads into a conversation about compassion, a mindfulness concept, which is the skill of being able to put yourself in the position of the person you're reciprocating with. 

Ideally, we're interested in what our partners value. So that when we make a contribution, it's valuable to them. And then we look at. Does the person have compassion for us? Does the person realize what we need or at least ask us what we need? And then does the person contribute something that's of value to us? 

One of the things I've learned to do with executives. They're very busy usually. I mean, my bosses, the executives. So when I have a meeting with an executive, I recognize that their time is extremely valuable. They have to spread it out among dozens or hundreds or thousands of employees. So the fact that I get an audience, at all, with this executive is kind of an amazing thing. 

And so thinking about time as something of precious value to an executive, I've often created an agenda well in advance of a meeting and I structure it so that the most important things that this executive and I need to discuss are first on the list. And at some point, if we run out of time, we can stop the meeting, and we will have done the most important things. 

So I go into meetings with execs and say, I want to respect your time. I'm assuming we have 15 minutes. If you want to keep going, we can keep going. But I'm going to start clocking down this list. And when we run out of time, I'll see you later. 

[00:12:07] Dan Dickson: Two things I could add to that. And there's number one, what you said is that I'm assuming we have 15 minutes. I mean, you talking about implicitly recognizing the fact that this individual is gonna be time constrained.

I'd like to come out and say, number one, is this a good time for you? Number two, what is your stop time? And number three, I respect the fact that you're giving me your time.

[00:12:27] Daniel Greening: Yeah, that's interesting. I'm not always as explicit as you are about that, but. regardless, what I've seen after I start doing this sort of thing with executives. I'm welcomed back. When I request a meeting, I usually get it. People know that I'm respecting their time. 

The other thing that has occurred is I create these relationships with executives, where it does do this incremental reciprocity thing. 

I'm thinking about an executive that I worked for at Skype. And he was having difficulty getting a presentation from one of his employees. I said, you know, why don't you let me work on that with him? And I didn't have to do that. That wasn't part of my remit. But what I did was worked with that employee to create a presentation for my boss. And we worked through it. He gave the presentation and the people he presented it to, his bosses, really liked it. 

So that was a contribution to him. And after that, there were many contributions that came back to me from that relationship. 

[00:13:44] Dan Dickson: Yeah. And that's an excellent example because let's just say you did the presentation and didn't get anything back. Okay, fine. Then you understand what the, limits of the, relationship are.

[00:13:52] Daniel Greening: Right. You provide something and then you don't get any rewards back. 

That reminds me that there are executives who don't give credit to their employees. That's kind of dumb actually, because it leads to employees not really wanting to contribute. It doesn't reach the top priority for them. 

So those selfish executives who always say me, me, me, I did XYZ. That's not a good strategy for productivity in a company. 

[00:14:25] Dan Dickson: Yeah, why bother? I absolutely agree.

[00:14:28] Daniel Greening: Any other thoughts on this? Do you have any other case studies? 

[00:14:32] Dan Dickson: No, I think, we've done some, , pretty good examples of how this works. And, , , it's, like I said, this conversation's always light me up because I can think back about, number one, how I perhaps could have handled something better. And number two, how I will handle things better in the future.

[00:14:46] Daniel Greening: Yeah i'm learning a lot from this project too

There's a couple of references that are useful to look at. One is titled "incremental commitment and reciprocity in a real time public goods game." That's kind of a mouthful, but game theory is what this is based on. So it's all about that. 

The other reference we provide is something called "Teamwork is an Individual Skill. Getting Your Work done when Sharing Responsibility." The primary author on that is Christopher Avery. He's actually a friend of mine and we'll be talking about something else from him in a future episode. 

[00:15:31] Dan Dickson: You're semi-famous.

[00:15:32] Daniel Greening: I'm connected to someone who might be famous. 

[00:15:37] Dan Dickson: Well , there you go.

[00:15:39] Daniel Greening: Okay. So check out those references in the show notes, if you're interested in finding out more. 

[00:15:46] Try It Yourself

[00:15:46] Daniel Greening: Here's something that audience members can try at home or work. Start a conversation with someone else to discover their challenges. Offered to help tangibly not just be a cheerleader. If they're doing something that requires exceptional skill, you don't have to contribute directly. You could just do something simple, like bring them dinner or, take care of some errands so that they can spend more time focusing on what they're up to. If they agree, limit your contribution. Don't spend more than 15 minutes helping. Then. Say, did that help? then see if they thank you for your help. Do they reciprocate later? Do they smile the next time you see them? If they haven't helped. I ask for an equivalent amount of time back to help you with something. See what happens. 

[00:16:44] Dan Dickson: Excellent. Excellent approach.

[00:16:45] Daniel Greening: Here's kind of an example of that. I've been working with a pal, a young pal who's in undergraduate school, and I am actually teaching him to do this explicitly. It's not something he ever learned how to do. So every day or two, we talk about different life skills, and then he goes to class and sometimes he tries them out. 

The other day, he offered to help a student he didn't know, sitting next to him in class. He said. "What do you think of the homework?" And the classmate said, "oh, this homework is really hard. I'm not sure what to do." And my pal said. "Well, let me help you if you're interested, because I learn the material better when I teach others." And the guy said, "okay," So they have a nice conversation and my friend helped him understand the concepts in the homework. The guy said, "Thank you," kind of the minimum in this sort of exchange, but it doesn't qualify as doing something equivalent back. And then a few days later I asked, "Hey, so did that guy ever do anything for you?" And he said, "No." I said, "okay, that's interesting. Right? Like, does that make you want to help him in the future?" He goes, "Yeah. You know, it might've been a waste of time." And I said, "No, it's not a waste of time. You discovered what his limitations were." 

[00:18:16] Dan Dickson: It is a low cost experiment.

[00:18:18] Daniel Greening: It was. 

All right. Thanks so much Dan Dickson. Hope you have a great week.

[00:18:24] Dan Dickson: Thank you, Dan. Greening. And same to you.

[00:18:27] Daniel Greening: For more information on this topic, references and other useful data are in the show notes.

Beta reviewers include Amelia Hambrecht and Stephen Tryon.

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The Mindful Agility project team includes Mirella Petalli, Dan Dickson and me, Dan Greening. 

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If you'd like to read about this topic, check out our weekly Substack brief called The Mindful Sprint. That brief is a super short two minute read. You'll get it in your email inbox, if you subscribe at mindfulagility.substack.com. You can comment on those briefs right in our Substack page, and we will reply. We also have a website at mindfulagility.com .

Thanks so much for listening. Have a great week. I'm Dan Greening.