The Power of Reciprocity for Inclusive Leaders

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There is a lot of conversation about the problems people face across differences.

Diversity and Inclusion is often pursued as the answer.

Reciprocity is the missing key.


“Diversity” focuses on the distinctive nature of individual identity, and how each one of us is shaped by the cultures of which we are part and by our particular life experiences.

“Inclusion” speaks to our human need to belong, to join with others in a family, a community, a team, a company.

The essential task for inclusive leaders: sort out how diversity is individually operating in themselves and in their people, in a way that builds team performance, retains talent, and serves customers.

For inclusive leaders, reciprocity is a powerful mindset and skillset. As such, reciprocity can be defined as “the equitable and generous exchange of value in a high-performing relationship”. We build reciprocal relationships with our colleagues by giving with the expectation of receiving, by growing mutual influence through turn-taking, and by developing trust through interdependence.


Reciprocity can be defined as “The equitable and generous exchange of value in a high-performing relationship”.


Reciprocity for social survival runs deep in us. Archaeologists Richard Leakey and Kurt Lewin said: “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.”

A productive and healthy work environment may be viewed as “an honored network of obligation.” In such a workplace, reciprocity is a remarkable leadership asset, because it opens the door to understanding and managing diversity positively. Imagine what can happen when I, as a white male executive, commit to growing a relationship of mutual influence with a colleague of color. When I show up as a true learner and an authentic contributor, and they do the same, then the differences between us fuel intrigue and innovation rather than conflict.

In such a context, reciprocity invites the practice of appreciative inquiry, where both people in a relationship expect giftedness in the other, and also explore their deep similarities.


Reciprocity is a remarkable leadership asset, because it opens the door to understanding and managing diversity positively, in the context of rich similarity.


Reciprocity involves equitable exchange. This does not mean that the parties receive identical value, but rather they give to one another that which each individual may not be able to give to themselves. For example, in Greatheart’s Reciprocal Mentoring Lab, executive-level men mentor and sponsor director-level women, so these women rise and stay with the organization. These talented women help their mentor/sponsors to become more inclusive leaders. The Lab also enables reciprocity between executive women mentors and their gender-savvy male mentees. Every participating leader builds reciprocity muscles they will flex across their careers. In this program, reciprocity operates not only across gender but also across hierarchy, which is a potent context for expanding mutual influence.

Karen Firestone, the CEO of Aureus Asset Management, describes reciprocal mentoring as “the bilateral transfer of knowledge.” When an inclusive leader constructs reciprocal relationships, a couple of remarkable outcomes occur:

  • The back and forth in reciprocity brings unintentional bias to light, and helps to mitigate its frequency and damage
  • The gaps between Intent and Impact decrease, because the people in the relationship accept accountability for giving and receiving what each other value.

The power in reciprocity for inclusive leaders is clear: when we ground our work relationships in generous and equitable exchange, we engage each individual with honor, and we live into mutually-excellent expectations with one another.

Reciprocity is vital to inclusive leadership, because it accelerates two-way trust, by making and keeping promises across human differences. I heartily recommend reciprocation, as a powerful and practical opportunity to explore mutual self-interest and ignite collaboration.


Chuck Shelton can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. Ernest McFadden on May 22, 2018 at 8:43 am

    Chuck, excellent article on the importance of reciprocity in meaningful relationships, especially in the workplace.

    Thanks for sharing !!


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