Healthcare Technology Featured Article

September 27, 2022

Building a Caring Culture: Carsten Thiel on Generalized Reciprocity in the Workplace

Every worker in a company is going to have their own objectives for their role, personal goals that they hope to reach, and an agenda they have set for themselves on how they will accomplish both. It is natural for us as humans to have individual wants and desires, and a leader should try to learn and encourage their employees’ unique goals in order to facilitate a group of individuals that are continually growing and innovating.

However, a group of individuals with their own objectives and agendas is not the same thing as a team that works seamlessly together to create real results. In order for an assembly of people to become a team they must be able to work together, helping each other to reach not only the organization’s goals, but also their own personal ones as well. A culture of cooperation is the bread and butter of an innovative and effective organization.

When Carsten Thiel became CEO of the biopharmaceuticals company EUSA Pharma, he quickly recognized that creating a team is an intellectual challenge. It requires a leader to set the tone for the organization, shifting the mindsets of others where needed from one of only turning to teammates when they need something or have a problem to what he calls a “caring culture,” or, one that is based on generalized reciprocity. 

What is generalized reciprocity?

According to the psychology website Verywell Mind, reciprocity is a process of exchanging things with other people in order to gain a mutual benefit. A subtype of this is generalized reciprocity, which is an exchange with no expectation of a returned favor. Rather, a person is doing something for another based on the assumption that they would make the same effort if their roles were reversed.

In the business world, the benefits of generalized reciprocity are clear. While competition in some forms can serve as a motivating force in a company, it is a tricky scale to balance with even just a tip too far in one direction causing a major decrease in efficiency. A culture that facilitates and encourages employee collaboration and generosity on the other hand, has few downsides if any. Employees seek out ways to aid others in their goals, and in turn they are provided with the same help when needed.

This concept of ‘paying it forward’ is particularly powerful, because it focuses on the individual experience. Rather than looking at ways in which others have helped in the past and using that as a guideline for how you should behave, a caring culture as Thiel envisioned it sees employees seeking to cooperate because they believe it is in the bones of the organization itself, motivated by the positive effect of gratitude rather than by self-interest.

Using generalized reciprocity in culture

According to Thiel, when he first began his new position as CEO he wanted to break his teams out of the habit of only going to their teammates when they needed something from them or had a problem. In order to facilitate this, he started by having each team member share with each other their own personal goals and objectives, from what they wanted to achieve in the next three years to what they wanted to get out of their position.

He found that the experience was an eye opening one for the entire company, as people who worked together every day learned new things about each other they had never known. They were able to discover what was important to each other, what their pain points and challenges were. Thiel said that what makes a great team is when people go beyond solving problems or even being there for others when they need it. Instead, it is when team members help each other to achieve the great things they have the potential and desire to accomplish that will also serve in the betterment of the organization as a whole.

As a leader, it is your job to lead a team of cross-functional people. Bringing a group of people together is an exercise in utilizing the myriad of skills, talents and specialties each individual possesses in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts. When you instill a caring culture that encourages generalized reciprocity, the definition of problem shifts because the collaborative and gracious environment creates a feeling of constant support.

Thiel said that a keyword in creating a caring culture is dependency. When approaching things from the perspective of self-interest it can be easy to forget that teams are formed for a reason: we are able to accomplish much more together than by ourselves. People are much more dependent on their team members than they often want to recognize or concede, but in creating a safe environment you can show that this fact isn’t negative. Rather, it is empowering to know that you are able to go further with your team than you ever would have been able to alone.

How to start building a caring culture

As with any aspect of an organization’s culture, in order to implement generalized reciprocity it must be incorporated through practices and systems. For Carsten Thiel, these intensive meetings held at the beginning of his time as CEO helped jumpstart a perspective shift for his teams, and a further step one can take is by creating opportunities for employees to continue these actions outside of them. Regular check-in meetings give employees a place they know they can discuss their goals and hear the goals of others on a consistent basis, preventing the need to check in on others and helping to create a constant feeling of paying it forward.

Find ways to consistently recognize employees who are exemplifying the culture. Formal programs such as an “employee of the month” can be reworked to be based on rewarding those who help others succeed rather than financial or other metrics, as well as a peer-to-peer bonus system that provides an opportunity for team members to recognize those who have helped them. However, not every program needs to be rewards-based. Simply sending out emails recognizing generosity or gratitude with consistency can instill in employees that these are valuable traits within the organization, as well as other options such as ending meetings with an invitation for team members to recognize their peers.

Thiel notes that a company culture is nothing without a strongly defined purpose and set of values, and encourages leaders to also review these to ensure they align with a caring culture. In his own organization, he arranged a company-wide meeting in which the entire organization added the new values of “trust” and “respect.” Values for an organization can be a clear and concise compass that employees look to when identifying what is expected of them, making them an easy place to instill a culture of gratitude.

It is a time of uncertainty for practically every industry, as pandemic shake-ups and economic factors create instability that can be detrimental to organizations with a weak culture. By encouraging team members to help each other without the expectation of anything in return, you help build an organization with a strong backbone that is able to surmount obstacles with integrity, innovation and efficiency. 

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