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Practicing Generosity

December 14, 2023

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About This Episode

(Season 4, Episode 16)

Do you see yourself as a generous collaborator? Research consistently points to the power of generosity in building trustful, long-term working relationships, yet we are often hesitant to risk leading with generosity.
In this practicast, Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch talk about why generosity is important in collaboration and share a practice for reflecting on your own generosity.

“Practicasts” are shorter episodes of the podcast highlighting a specific practice to help empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness.



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Jessica Beckendorf: Do you see yourself as a generous collaborator? Research consistently points to the power of generosity in building trustful, long-term working relationships. Yet we are often hesitant to risk leading with generosity.

Hi, everyone, this is Jessica, and welcome to this week’s Practicing Connection practicast, where we highlight a specific practice you can use in your life and work. This week’s practice is all about generosity. Making time for generosity can build trust, which is a key ingredient to collaborative relationships. While engaging in acts of generosity can be vulnerable, the benefits are too big to ignore. My Practicing Connection co-host, Bob Bertsch, will be guiding you through a practice related to generosity later in this episode. First, we’ll learn a little more about generosity in general.

Hi, Bob.

Bob Bertsch: Hey, Jessica. I’m looking forward to this conversation. Generosity is one of those pillars of the working out loud process, which was an important process to both of us, I know, so I’m anxious to talk about it.

Jessica: I’d like to start with connecting generosity to collaboration. How does generosity play a role in collaborative efforts?

Bob: I think there are a couple of ways generosity plays a role in collaboration. The first is in its role in building trust. In order for people to cooperate, they have to have some level of trust in each other. When we first encounter someone new, there’s often uncertainty because we can’t predict how that person will behave, and as a result, we don’t know how to behave in that person’s presence. Approaching that first interaction with generosity provides a foundation for trust. It demonstrates a view of others that’s giving and assumes positive intent on their part.

We’re social creatures, so that generosity that you extend is likely to be reciprocated. Research has shown people very precisely reciprocate the degree of cooperation that they received from the other in the past interaction. With a giving attitude and an assumption in favor of positive intent as the basis of the relationship, trust is more likely to be developed because that generosity is likely to be reciprocated.

The second role generosity plays in collaboration is in mediating social dilemmas. When there is uncertainty, disagreement, or maybe a perceived gap in reciprocity, the social dilemmas are going to be part of any collaboration at some point, or any relationship really at some point. Research by Klapwijk and Van Lang has shown these social dilemmas can be challenged by what they call negative noise. What they mean by that are mistakes that cause actual outcomes to be worse than they were intended to be.

An example would be like accidentally saying the wrong thing, many of us have done that before, or forgetting to respond to an email. Those are just mistakes, but they impact the outcome. They found that this negative noise is more challenging if you’re in a transactional or tit for tat strategy in terms of the relationship. It was less challenging in relationships grounded in generosity.

Jessica: That is so interesting. I definitely have been the person who has forgotten to get back to emails and things like that. I’m curious to learn more about why it’s helpful to understand our motivations behind our acts of generosity. Can you share a little bit about that?

Bob: Sure. That research that I just mentioned about negative noise being a bigger challenge in transactional or tit for tat strategies than in those grounded in generosity, if we’re going to take advantage of knowing that, we need to know which strategy we’re using. We think we do, but the problem is, sometimes we think we’re being generous, but we actually have expectations we would associate with a tit for tat strategy.

John Stepper wrote about a wonderful example we can use to try and think about this and examine it. The example is holding the door open for someone. On the surface, it seems like a completely generous strategy. When you think about it more deeply, we often find that we have expectations of that being a transaction. For instance, like how do you feel when you hold the door for someone, but they don’t acknowledge you at all, they don’t say thanks, they don’t smile, they don’t make eye contact? Do you feel differently about the action?

Jessica: Isn’t that them just being a jerk?

Bob: That could be too.

Jessica: No.

Bob: If you hold the door for someone upon entering a building, and then you end up coincidentally exiting together and they don’t hold the door for you. If you find that you are expecting some kind of reciprocation, then you might not have had a completely generous strategy in mind. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a different strategy. Holding the door is just a helpful example. Sometimes we think we’re being generous with others in our work when we’re really expecting reciprocity. If we aren’t clear with ourselves about our expectations, then we can’t be clear with our coworkers and let them know that, hey, we’re expecting some kind of reciprocity, especially if we’re presenting our actions as being completely generous. That lack of clarity can have a really negative impact on trust, and in turn, cooperation. I think that’s why it’s important to know, are we motivated here purely by generosity, or are we expecting some kind of transaction?

Jessica: What are the things that can get in the way of having a generous strategy? Why is it sometimes difficult to be generous or to lead with that strategy versus thinking in a reciprocal way? Again, like you said, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with thinking in a reciprocal way, but what gets in the way of us leading with that generosity instead?

Bob: A few things come to mind for that. One is relevant past experience. Note relevant. We might not be generous with someone because we have learned not to. They’ve taken advantage of our generosity in the past. We might be able to be generous with that person again if something has changed for them or maybe something’s changed for us or the context is different, or we could try being generous with them in lower risk ways to see if we can find our way back to trust, but that’s just based on past experience. Sometimes we find ourselves not being generous because we got burned by that person. That’s what makes it relevant, by the way.

Another thing that comes to mind is bias. Our willingness to be generous when we encounter someone new can be dampened by the biased assumption that we can predict their behavior based only on erroneous or irrelevant information. If you think about bias, that’s really what we’re describing, the assumption someone’s going to act in a particular way.

Finally, another reason that it can be hard is that we often misapply past experience. Many of us have had previous experiences of being hurt by those that we trusted, and that can make it difficult to be generous with someone new. That’s misapplied, I think, because we’re not basing that on the someone new, we’re basing it on somebody who did it before. That’s why I called it misapplication.

I think practicing generosity and reflecting on our acts of generosity can be helpful in overcoming those kinds of barriers that you asked about.

Jessica: Thank you. I think it’s time for us to practice this, and I think this is a reflective practice, so could you please walk us through that?

Bob: Yes. I’ve adapted this practice from questions shared by Susan Mazza in her blog post, Genuine Generosity, and we’ll link that from the show notes, and from the words of many other teachers over the years, I’m grateful for their generosity in sharing their wisdom with me, and I’m glad to share this with you.

Let’s start by recalling a time when you believed you had acted generously and found you were less than satisfied with the outcome. Try to bring to mind the place you were, the action you took, the other person or people involved, and the feeling of dissatisfaction. Now that you’ve brought that to mind, think about what you really wanted or expected in return for your generosity. Be honest with yourself here. This is an opportunity to consider what motivates your generosity and why this particular situation left you feeling unsatisfied.

Now with that experience still firmly in mind, consider how it would have been different if you had gotten what you wanted. What would that have looked like? How would it have been different for you? How do you think it would have been different for the recipient of your generosity?

Next, think about the beliefs and values that you hold that contributed to this experience. If your experience does not match what you consciously think you believe, then you’ll know there’s work to be done to align your beliefs and values with your actions.

Finally, now that we’ve considered that situation, think about one way that you can be genuinely generous this week. How can you let go of your expectations for reciprocity of any kind and just be generous?

Jessica: Wow. Thanks so much for guiding us through that practice. I actually practiced it while you were saying it. I really appreciate that, Bob. Thank you so much.

Bob: You’re welcome. I really enjoy talking about generosity and these kinds of ideas, and it was my pleasure to share that.

Jessica: That’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for joining us. We hope you’ll give this practice a try and share your experience in the Practicing Connection LinkedIn group, where people supporting military families practice the skills that empower us to work together so that we can positively impact our communities and help families thrive. You’ll find the link to the group on our website at We’ll be back next week with a practice called Fostering Connection in Meetings. Until then, keep practicing.

Kalin Goble: The Practicing Connection podcast is a production of OneOp, and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense, under award numbers 2019-48770-30366 and 2023-48770-41333.

[00:12:37] [END OF AUDIO]


December 14, 2023
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