What can the Law of Reciprocity teach you about effective product management?

What can the Law of Reciprocity teach you about effective product management?

by Tom Morgan |
10th August, 2022 |
Tom Morgan
3 Jun, 2023

The law of reciprocity is an important feature of negotiation. And as I’ve written previously, mastering negotiation is a critical skill for all product managers.

In fact our post practising reciprocity in negotiation is consistently our highest-read page on our company website at Kahvay.

So what is the law of reciprocity, and how can you use it in your day-to-day practice of product management?

First off, a definition 👇

In social psychology, reciprocity is a social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions they are frequently much more nasty and even brutal.

That’s it; it comes as no surprise if you’re friendly, then your counterpart is friendly, and vice-versa; if you raise the temperature, they will respond in kind. Simply put, it’s human behaviour. There’s a reason why you hear phrases like;

A smile opens many doors.


A smile is worth a thousand words.

But what happens when they are behaving in a way that creates conflict or simply does not reciprocate your behaviour?

Effective Product management is hard enough as it is, without worrying about what other folks think, right? Wrong.

A big part of your role is about influencing without authority. You need buy-in. You need to motivate the team. You need to give bad news. You need to ask for more resources when there aren’t any. You must give candid and constructive feedback when someone hasn’t met your expectations. All whilst maintaining good working relationships.

How do you achieve this?

Mirroring language is a tried and tested approach. But truthfully, what we say matters much less than we think. I liked this article by Jano le Roux.

Especially as the ‘art of saying no’ is such an important part of managing a successful product. Jano refers to the study by professor Albert Mehrabian on social communications, which we also refer to in our own digital foundation course for negotiators.

Look here for a good summary of this study 👇

Here’s the overly-simplistic interpretation. Where you see or use it, qualify it, in the proper context.

7% of meaning in the words that are spoken.

38% of the meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).

55% of meaning is in facial expression.

In other words, the tone and your facial expression totals about 93% of your communication.

The article goes on to remind readers that this is not set in stone. But is especially pertinent when the facial expression does not match the words being spoken. In our coaching with clients, we refer to this as the ‘collaboration of three’.

Eyes — Body — Voice

Do the words spoken match their eyes and their body language? When they don’t match, it’s more often than not a red flag.

Reciprocity is key to how you get what you want. Reciprocity is how you gauge whether your counterpart is;

  • Ready (The timing of your request)
  • Willing to follow your path. (they agree with you!)
  • Able (their authority to make the decision)

You can gauge this by testing their ability and desire to reciprocate. For example, I’ve copied an excerpt from our blog post to show you;

Using appropriate language that signals they are in your debt:

“I’ve moved; your move next”

“I’ve offered a concession; it’s your turn”

“My offer is a sign of good faith; I need a similar sign in return”

make your exchanges conditional;

“under the condition that you”

“if you were to consider X, then I would reciprocate with A”

If they don’t reciprocate, you may still need to build trust with your counterpart to secure the change you needed.

By using simple techniques like reciprocity. It can help you access your counterpart’s hardwired social programming in an appropriate way to help support you in getting the job done. Practice makes perfect; good luck.

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