What is the Power of Giving?

We all enjoy being connected with Others, being recognised for who we are and being part of community.  This is the power of relationship. At heart of it all we are still programmed by some primitive drivers to be connected with Others and there are some deep-seated and often unconscious behaviours that draw us together.  One of these is the power of giving.

We are all making deep level assessments constantly about what is safe, what is not safe.  We do this constantly, mostly at a level that is not in our awareness.  Humans have patterns that help us get through those automatic decisions of the day.  They are shortcuts that save us from thinking.  Because thinking is such hard work, it is easier to rely on some shortcuts.  Assumptions, previous experience, the accepted norms of the locals. It’s all about how to stay safe, how to survive.

Giving is one of those automatic patterns.  Giving triggers “reciprocity”, which is the obligation to return a favour.  It is proven by research that humans have a driving sense of obligation to repay a favour given. Reciprocity is a behaviour pattern that helps us to survive in community.

Marketing companies know all about the power of this rule.   You are offered a trial of product by your hairdresser or a sample in the supermarket ‘with no obligation’.  But after you have tried it? Guess what – there is an internal pressure to buy it and try it…it’s not really a free sample because the reciprocity pattern kicks in. You receive a pack of Christmas cards in the mail from a charity, cards that you never ordered.  But you are asked to ‘make a donation’.  Most people do.  It’s the obligation we feel to repay a favour.  It’s a very powerful influence.

Is Giving manipulative? Good question. Surely it depends on the motive, right?

Lots of Giving happens because someone wants to share what they have or reward you or let you know how loved you are or appreciated.  Giving is often a way of thanking people. Giving is about loving people.  But isn’t this also at some level, about confirming loyalty, commitment and connection and ultimately…obligation?   We are safer when we are finding a balance between connection and control in our relationships with Others and Giving has a role to play.

There is an exception.  Giving anonymously cannot be about personal recognition or connection or advantage – because no one knows where the reciprocity should go!  Secret giving encourages people to ‘pay it forward’. When sneaky and secret benefits are given and no one knows who gave them – it fosters a general goodwill.

Maybe it’s a bit saddening to reduce something that is a joy to all parties to a cynical observation about primitive programming to keep us safe.  But so what?  The background is just that we want and need to be with others and Giving is a tool in the kitbag.  It does not make the practice of giving less beautiful or valued, to know that it brings relationship benefits – and that’s not really news, is it?

We are in the business of influencing Others – all of us.  It’s what we do and it’s not a bad thing in itself.  We are all working on how we influence and connect, manage power and safety in all of our relationships.  Our conflicts arise when uncertainty develops around these factors.  Naming Giving as as a tool of influence doesn’t diminish it, when it is genuinely intended.

Where is the power in Giving used?  Everywhere.

Giving can be as simple as providing a cup of tea and a biscuit.  Hospitality creates a greater obligation for safety, for treating the host well.  It certainly sets a warmer context for conversations that are highly charged with passion and concern.  If nothing else, it’s a courtesy, an acknowledgement, a gesture of thanks.  Giving is an action of influence.

The negotiator that gives a concession, will be more likely to get one back. They are owed. The manager who receives a quality welcome gift and a sponsored complementary partner programme at the business conference will be compromised on future decisions involving that sponsor. You can be sure of it.  The bureaucrat given tickets to the Opera by a Corporation, will feel a little more obligation to the Corporation cause, whether or not they acknowledge this or the reason why.  There is a good reason for gift disclosure registries in the political and public sector – at least in Australia – and visibility of political donations. Transparency is an accountability. Humans are brilliant at self-justification and can find a good reason for accepting personal benefit in all circumstances. All good lobbyists know – there is power in giving.

Here are some ways of giving that help make the wheels go round in the world:

  • Giving help with mundane or difficult tasks – they may help you in return.
  • Providing quality morning tea at a meeting or workshop – generosity creates appreciation.
  • Buying some of that particular item you know he/she loves – build goodwill.
  • Giving a bonus to acknowledge and reward achievements – so you encourage more of that.

Whether or not it is manipulative is an ethical question and a case-by-case question. People who give are not always using this as a ‘strategy’.  They want to invest in a ‘good vibe’ between the giver and receiver.  Simple as that.  But in the big world, some do have a strategy.  And in marketing and negotiation, Giving is absolutely a strategy.  Where are the lines drawn fairly when one is giving to influence?  That’s up to you to work out.

At least when you know about it, you can choose where you stand with its power.

Saleena Ham