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Tit for Tat: Establishing a Credible Reputation

If you have a new job, you know how important it is to gain the respect of those with whom you now work. Here, I’d like to share with you a very simple strategy to establish a credible reputation in your new organization. It’s called “tit for tat,” which is to say “do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Well, it isn’t exactly the golden rule but it is a kind of variation.

Tit for tat asks you to shape a style of play that is both adaptive and consistent. At first blush, to be adaptive and to be consistent seems at odds, but they are not. The strategy of tit for tat has you reciprocate cooperation for cooperation and noncooperation for noncooperation. You adapt to others while offering predictable responses. Such moves build a credible reputation quickly. You become known as someone who is always ready to cooperate but will not be played for a sucker.

Such behavior, however, does not tell you what to do in the initial round of your many two-person multiround games in the organization. Tit for tat would have you cooperate in the first round using the golden rule. If your cooperation is not reciprocated in fair measure, then tit for tat has you reciprocate in kind while remaining ready to return to a cooperative relationship if the other person gets the message and resumes cooperating in your next round together. After the first round, you become known as someone who is conditionally cooperative.

At first glance, tit for tat does not seem to have a mind of its own, but that is not really true. Develop a credible reputation for initiating cooperation but make it clear that you are not willing to let others take advantage of you. The simple progression of play for your tit for tat strategy is (1) cooperate in the first round; (2) continue to cooperate in succeeding rounds as long as the other person cooperates; and (3) be prepared to terminate cooperation immediately if the person defects; but (4) don’t hold a grudge if the person resumes cooperation and reciprocates immediately.

Adapting your behavior to others and the consistently with which you do it clarify how you treat others and how you want to be treated. When others find that there is nothing unpredictable about you, you will have fewer adjustments to make. As those who have not yet played the game with you learn about your style of play, they are likely to adapt their play to yours. After all, consistent cooperation is more productive than the short-term gain of defection.

Tit for tat is as effective a strategy, whether you are about to leave your current organization or if you are new to it. Last impressions, just like first impressions, have consequences.

Tit for tat is not a winner’s strategy, but it is a way to establish a credible reputation as someone who is ready to contribute to the welfare of colleagues as long as they return the favor. That’s not a bad way to introduce yourself to a new organization when people are trying to size you up. It’s also not a bad way to be remembered when you leave.

Furthermore, as you go from one position to another, you probably will remain networked with a lot of people who may have little to do with your latest organization. They are your former colleagues from other organizations—a host of pairings where tit for tat also got played out. Wherever you find yourself, you need to continue the practice of tit for tat to maintain or enhance your networking relationships.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from Organization Smarts by David W. Brown.  Copyright 2002, David W. Brown. Published by AMACOM. For more information: www.amaconbooks.org

 

About the Author(s)

David W. Brown is professor of professional practice at the New School’s Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, and coeditor of the Kettering Foundation’s Higher Education Exchange. He is author of Organization Smarts, published by AMACOM.