Free Starbucks? A Business Lesson in Reciprocity

Shannon Brown Innovation


Shannon Brown is a Ph.D. student at Benedictine University’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership (CVDL) and has served in leadership positions with Thomson Reuters, Tata Consultancy Services and BoomTime. In addition, she is an adjunct faculty member at Dominican University where she teaches courses in leadership studies.

In June, I attended a Roundtable, hosted by the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, where I had the privilege of hearing renowned futurist Bob Johansen talk about the forecast that he and his colleagues at the Institute for the Future see for the next 10 years.

His three most prominent forecasts, based on the idea of the “VUCA World,” include the impact of the digital natives, the growing well-being economy, and the importance of reciprocity.

Of those, the one that gives me the greatest hope for our future is the idea of reciprocity. Bob and the Institute for the Future support this forecast with cloud computing, suggesting that the cloud will allow us to experience reciprocity in completely new ways because of the connectivity and communication available to us through new technology.

This is such an uplifting forecast to me, because of what reciprocity requires. Reciprocity is the idea of “getting and giving in equal measure.” This doesn’t always mean we get or give exactly the same thing, but perhaps we can agree that if you and I get and give what we need, then our arrangement is reciprocal.

We’ve all heard the term, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” That’s reciprocity in action.

The amazing thing about reciprocity is that it requires each person to take a complete leap of faith in humanity, to trust that if they put something out there, they will get back something that they need, in equal measure.

Of course in my experience, I often get back much more than I give.

An Experiment in Reciprocity

I found evidence of the validity of the reciprocity forecast through a social experiment conducted by a couple of people and a Starbuck’s card. The card was loaded with value and made available for use by anyone, with only the request that we add money to it if you could. I got an opportunity to use the card (and it worked); I was so excited about it that I put $10 back on it myself – more than what my purchase would have cost, but it was worth it to me to participate and to help out someone else.

Starbuck’s has since shutdown the card, but if you want to read the original article, check out it out here. Although disappointed that Starbuck’s didn’t let his experiment continue, the originator of the card is hopeful that this is the start of something, and I believe he’s right, especially given the amount of traffic on the Card’s Facebook page (

How can you implement reciprocity to use in your organization? It’s actually simpler than you might think. I know of organizations who offer “benefit trading” wherein employees who won’t use all of their sick or vacation time can put it in a pool to be used by another employee experiencing a longer illness or a family member who requires care. Some software companies make programs free of charge but invite people to donate if they can (check out for free anti spyware). The idea is to think about what product or service you have to offer that you can afford to give away. It might be as simple as a blog that offers advice that may help someone, without having to pay for your consulting services.

In case you’re still not convinced, there is also research that shows this type of behavior in organizations, sometimes referred to as “organizational virtuousness,” builds on itself. These positive acts serve as amplifiers, which encourage positive emotions and additional positive behaviors among and between the employees, ultimately leading to higher performance*.

Perhaps as leaders and innovators and educators and parents, or perhaps just as humans and members of the planet, it’s time to consider what are we willing and able to put out there for others to use, knowing that what’s good for others will ultimately be good for us as well.


  • Find more videos from Bob Johansen on the CVDL’s YouTube Channel, BenedictineCVDL. 
  • Join us at the next Senior Executive Roundtable on Oct. 14th. 

 *For more information about organizational virtuousness or the specific results of the referenced study, see Cameron, K. et al. (2004), Exploring the relationships between organizational virtuousness and performance, American Behavioral Scientist, 47:766.

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