I'd just hung up the phone, dismayed. After spending the better part of an hour on the phone with an entrepreneur a friend of mine had asked me to advise, there was no talk of how he could return the favor — he barely coughed up a thank you.
There's an economic case to be made for his behavior. Why bother seeing if he could reciprocate when he had nothing tangible to gain — he'd already gotten as much as he was going to get from me. Trying to be helpful to me in return would have been the nice thing to do, but to what advantage?
An increasingly modular work world has been a boon to businesses and individuals alike: more flexibility, more freedom, more autonomy. But the underbelly of this level of mobility is the assumption we can port people like we do phone numbers. Even if we work in a more traditional environment, we might wonder why bother cultivating a relationship with our co-workers, when if the numbers are right about Gen Y, they'll have left this job in eighteen months anyway?
I'd like to think that I truly connect with everyone I do business with. But as much as I intend to, I don't always. Who of us hasn't said (or heard), "Hey babe, there are so many beautiful things we could do together..." But once we snag the [client, the information needed, or the funding], we wonder "Why buy the cow, when I just got the milk for free?" "It's all about the relationship" we whisper softly... right until we get what we want.
In the piece Fifty Shades of Thrivability, Michelle Holiday writes, "Far too often today's standards of success [involve] running a company that makes money in a transactional fashion...which is the equivalent of anonymous transactional sex. There's a momentary satisfaction (landing a client, beating the competition, or selling the company), but a deeper craving remains. You get to the end goal, but you may not feel emotionally enriched. The other people are likely to be left feeling used. You then have to start from scratch in search of a new conquest each time, with both employees and customers."
We can get away with the hook-up mentality in the short-term because the value destruction won't be immediately apparent. Long-term, this model is unsustainable. Starting at zero (or negative) every time, whether acquiring a new customer, supplier, or trading partner will drive operating costs ever higher. When we use people, or companies, with no thought for tomorrow, the transaction may be two-way from a functional perspective, but it's a one-way ticket to a financial and emotional island. Even as we focus on sustainability and ecological balance, it's ironic that people and relationships are becoming disposable.
Compare this love-me, then leave-me approach to the research model of the Myelin Repair Foundation dedicated to the treatment of multiple sclerosis. By breaking down barriers between academic research and commercial drug development — in other words, by increasing reciprocity — they are shortening the time it takes to develop a drug by 50 percent. "As we reciprocate, we build trust and relationships, flooding our brain with oxytocin that is essential not only to collaboration, but to innovation," says fellow HBR blogger Judith E. Glaser, and the author of Creating We.
Each of us will, no doubt, experience the discomfort of feeling "used," as with the above-mentioned entrepreneur, at some point in our careers. The trick is, of course, to keep ourselves open to connection, despite the risk of giving more than we're getting.
But what I am learning over and again, and most recently here at HBR as I co-author pieces (thanks to Juan-Carlos Mendez, Tara Mohr, Bob Moesta and Whitney Hess) is that collaboration not only punches up the innovation quotient, there is a biological imperative at work. As we connect and collaborate, give and take, we are evolving, emerging stronger and more capable. Yes, there is a certain kind of high, albeit fleeting, to a "hook-up." But as we invest in connecting, and our brain rewards us chemically with a wash of feel-good oxytocin, we'll be reminded that people are not only a precious commodity, they are a renewable resource.