RCs Learn to Give and Take
Campus News, Featured, Features

RCs Learn to Give and Take

Gabriel Ellsworth, Editor-in-Chief

This year’s START featured a new addition: Reciprocity Rings. Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) reports.

On the second day of their MBA journey, the Class of 2021 learned a lesson that should serve them well throughout their two years at HBS and beyond: request and offer help often.

They tried their hands at doing just that through a guided collaboration exercise, the Reciprocity Ring®, which this year made its début as part of the RC START curriculum. The session took place in the Hives on August 29.

Reciprocity Rings are meant to demonstrate and encourage “generalized reciprocity,” which Robert D. Putnam defines as follows: “I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.” Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, is famous for his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, among other works.

Cheryl & Wayne Baker developed the Reciprocity Ring in 2000. Wayne Baker was a postdoctoral research fellow at HBS from 1985 to 1987 and is now a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He took time this August to train a team of Ring Captains, ECs and School staff members who led rings for the RCs. (Each ring comprised about one-quarter of a section.)

According to Baker’s research, most people are willing to help others, yet most people do not ask for what they need; as a result, their needs go unmet. (His new book on this topic, All You Have to Do Is Ask, will be published by Penguin Random House in January 2020.)

“When Cheryl and I first started using the Reciprocity Ring, we thought that getting people to help would be the challenge,” Baker said. “That was rarely the case. The real problem was getting people to ask for what they need. Requests drive the cycle of giving and receiving.”

During START, however, sections solved this problem.

For the Reciprocity Ring, every RC wrote a request to put up on a whiteboard. After all students in the ring had announced their requests, they took turns making offers of help. The average request received multiple offers; in the ring that I led, for example, 24 requests were met with 114 offers. That equates to 4.75 offers per request—a highly visible example of the power, reach, and diversity of the HBS network.

The four RCs whom I asked about their experience of the Reciprocity Ring all reacted very positively to it. “It was an excellent workshop; I really enjoyed it,” said Barton McGuire (MBA 2021D), who “had never done anything like it” before.

While many requests were professional (e.g., “I’d like help practicing case interviews”), others were personal. Kenny Safar (MBA 2021F) hopes to start writing humor, so he asked to meet with someone who has experience performing standup comedy. He received multiple offers.

“It’s a flaw for sure, but I’m generally very reticent to ask for help,” Safar said. “I’m over-reliant on myself, and that’s just inefficient.”

He found the Reciprocity Ring to be beneficial not only for getting help himself but also for getting to know his new sectionmates better. “It was an interesting psychological bridge-building exercise. You learn a lot about people, not just based on where they worked or are from, but on what they request. Their request speaks to their personality or the types of hobbies that they would like to bring to campus.”

One RC, who requested anonymity, chose to take a risk and broach a difficult topic. “It’s more than likely that some of us will be bystanders to sexual harassment on campus,” she said. Her request was to have a conversation about it with every member of her section by the end of 2019, “because the best way to prevent sexual violence is to practice talking about it, about possible ways of responding to a situation.”

This student had felt “nervous” about her request, but she had a chance to practice making it with some sectionmates before the session. “Then those people stood up and emboldened other people to make offers,” she recounted. She received 10 offers of help. And hers “wasn’t the only request that was more vulnerable.”

So far, the Reciprocity Rings appear to be achieving their goal of facilitating the exchange of help while also building high-quality connections within sections.

In addition to imbuing the section with a collective feeling of gratitude, the exercise “created this great sense of acceptance,” McGuire said. “If you bring to the table something that’s very important to you, when people offer to help, they’re not just offering you the benefit of helping but also implicitly accepting you and the thing that’s important to you.”

Based on conversations with his sectionmates, McGuire believes that “everyone’s coming out of START feeling very positive about our section.” He commented, “The whole START week was very well programmed, and the Reciprocity Ring was one of the more memorable exercises to me. That workshop was an important part of getting us off on the right foot. The Reciprocity Rings really established a good section dynamic early on.”

Another student added that combined with the Mind Map activity that RCs completed during their orientation, the Reciprocity Rings “have created a very positive and supportive environment from the start.”

That was an important goal of the START faculty. Professor Leonard A. Schlesinger (DBA 1979) told me that when HBS previously included Reciprocity Rings in the curriculum, it was for Bridges, the capstone experience at the end of EC year, with the Class of 2015.

Schlesinger explained, “At the conclusion of our Reciprocity Ring during Bridges 2015, I turned to Professor Kristin Mugford (who was running Bridges at the time) and said, ‘This was great, but it should be at the beginning of the MBA program and not at the end. It serves a much more useful purpose to establish reciprocity-oriented behaviors as MBA students arrive than introducing it as they depart.’”

As for the long-term effect of this exercise on the Class of 2021, that is not yet clear, but Tannya Cai (MBA 2021I), who said that she “loved the activity,” has two suggestions. First, requesters need to follow up with those who made offers of help to them, and those who offered help need accountability.

To that end, the RCs now have a channel within their Slack workspace dedicated to requests and offers for help—a sort of virtual Reciprocity Ring, which should help facilitate ongoing conversations. The student who asked for conversations about sexual misconduct is using it to schedule coffee chats.

Second, Cai recommended to her instructor that their section repeat the Reciprocity Ring activity in a few months. “As people’s needs and desires change, they will know better what to request and how to ask for it,” she said. “That’s where the real impact’s going to be—as we start to get to know and understand each other better.”

For now, participants in the START session are working to help each other with this first batch of requests. The helpers include at least one faculty member: Professor Benjamin C. Esty (MBA 1991E), who led START for New F.

Esty reports, “At the end of the session, there were three or four ‘unfulfilled’ requests: getting Roger Federer’s autograph, contacting Jon Stewart about a charity event, and learning to be a DJ.

“I couldn’t fulfill any of them personally, but through colleagues I found a way to reach Federer’s business partner and got contact information for Stewart’s agent. Through a former student, I was also able to make a connection on the DJ request.

“So without even going to the entire class of 2021, we were able to make progress on all of the requests.”

Whether or not Esty’s students manage to get in touch with Federer and Stewart, the lesson for the RCs is clear: they should not hesitate to ask for help.

More information on the Reciprocity Ring® is available from Give and Take, which also offers Givitas, a software platform that facilitates asking for help within workplaces.


Gabriel Ellsworth (MBA ’20) came to HBS from HBS, where he worked for five years as a research associate, most recently as a casewriter with a faculty member in the Strategy Unit. This summer, he interned as a consultant with the Boston office of Bain & Company. He read English literature as an undergraduate at Yale, where he also studied Japanese and French. In addition to the Harbus, he is involved in the HBS Show. As a young boy, he fantasized about becoming a novelist, but he quickly realized that he did not actually have any ideas for novels.

September 11, 2019

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