Women jumping in the water
Ideas for Leaders #002

Business Relationships: Test the Water or Take a Leap of Faith?

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Key Concept

Professional relationships built slowly and consistently over time are more likely, in the long run, to be more stable, robust and cohesive. When embarking on a new relationship with a client, co-worker, or employee - we can fast-track that solidarity with early, frequent and consistent interactions to create a sense of momentum.

Idea Summary

There are two basic types of exchanges employed by people when forming new relationships: incremental exchanges and constant exchanges. In the former, we ‘test the water’ and build relationships gradually through incremental steps of commitment; in the latter we take ‘leaps of faith’ in each other and relations gets off to a quick start. So do these exchange patterns result in different levels of solidarity, and if so, why?

These questions have both practical and theoretical implications for understanding how to build solid relationships at work as well as elsewhere. In addition, perhaps they can help shed light on why some relations survive and loom more significant or meaningful than others.
In order to determine if these incremental or constant exchanges result in different levels of relational bonding, we can examine the value (i.e. level) and frequencies of exchanges in three laboratory studies, modelled to mimic a simple cooperative relationship between two people. Participants performed a series of ‘reciprocal exchange’ tasks with an anonymous partner, with the partner in each pair simulated and programmed to exchange either incrementally or constantly (unknown to the participant). After the exchanges, participants also completed a post-study questionnaire.

The results of these studies included the following:

  • Exchanging incrementally in resource level (i.e. entrusting more and more) can produce greater levels of cohesion than exchanging at a full and constant level.
  • Constant exchange in frequency produced greater cohesion than either incremental exchange or incremental-long conditions.
  • Exchanging incrementally in size produced more cohesion, whether the exchange pattern in frequency was constant or incremental. Conversely, exchanging incrementally in frequency produced less cohesion.

Existing research has focused on relatively static or aggregate properties of exchange, whereas this research shows how exchange dynamics shape the development of solidarity.

In other words, testing the water when it comes to exchange value resulted in more cohesive relationships; however, doing the same when it comes to frequency demonstrated the opposite, resulting in a more disrupted relationship.

Business Application

These findings make a convincing case for paying greater attention to the dynamics of exchange relations. Some exchange relations start out slowly and cautiously, as participants are wary of risks of exploitation, gradually stabilizing into cohesive exchange relations through sequences of incremental exchanges. On the other hand, other relations quickly settle into full and constant exchange to maximize the value of each exchange.

In terms of the practical application of these findings, when you next embark on a new relationships with a client, co-worker, employee – consider that your professional network can be built and strengthened by committing to a pattern of interaction with reasonable and consistent frequency to begin with, starting slow to provide opportunities to test each others’ trustworthiness.

Early exchange patterns have significant implications for how we come to view each other in working relationships.

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Idea conceived

  • 2012

Idea posted

  • March 2013

DOI number



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