How to be a successful giver

February 14, 2014

Adam GrantLast year I read a New York Times Magazine piece about a young professor at Wharton called Adam Grant. He was 31 and an academic star. The title of the piece was Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? I devoured it, enjoyed it, but shortly thereafter moved on and forgot about it. Until just now, when I listened to a compelling Grant talk about his research into giving. This was during another of the 85 Broads webinars I regularly log into. Below I outline his suggestions for becoming 'a successful giver', someone who is happy to help others and does better in their career as a result.

For his book Give and Take Grant wanted to research his hunch that something extra was involved in success - something in addition to things like hard work, talent, and luck. He contends successful people are more likely than others to be 'givers'.

I think for women in particular the topic of giving can be complicated. As a sex, we're expected to be kind and generous. Some of us embrace that role wholeheartedly, extending ourselves to everyone we meet to the extent that we become exhausted. More on this - and why it's a bad strategy - later.

Grant divides people's 'reciprocity style' into three types: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are the ones who are going to show up early or stay late to help someone out. They will willingly share their knowledge with others. Takers, he says, "never want to give, only take", and we associate them with "free riding, social loafing" and leaving the grunt work to someone else. Matchers are obsessed with fairness. "They go around treating their relationships like accountants manage money, so that everything zeros out and matches up evenly."

During his research (which involved both original research and combing through others' work) Grant found that ultimately, givers were most successful at work. You might think being a matcher is the best type to be: everything fair and square. And as for givers, don't we all know someone who is so helpful they never get anything done themselves? Yet, Grant says, "Givers add more value to organizations – research on this is very strong."

One of the organizations Grant looked at was a sales firm. Givers brought in 68% more in sales volume than anyone else. But here's an interesting thing: at first, givers don't do well (he looked at this in three different work contexts). Their generosity does seem to hold them back in some ways, presumably because they're spending 'too' much time helping others rather than doing their own work, and in the case of sales, because they refuse to flog rubbish products. But over time, because of the way they relate to others, givers win out.

How to be a successful giver:

  • First, being an 'unsuccessful giver' means trying to help all of the people all of the time. You're always devoting yourself to others and you make yourself "vulnerable to exploitation by takers".
  • "Being a successful giver means being helpful while not sacrificing your own goals," says Grant. "They are careful about who, when and how much they help." Givers will act less generously with the greedy person, the taker, knowing that person isn't likely to reciprocate or even appreciate their efforts. Also, Grant says, successful givers prioritize helping certain people - people they know they have things in common with and are likely to be truly able to help (listen to show #26 - Get Ahead, No Guilt - to hear the Financial Times' Mrs. Moneypenny on this topic).
  • Grant himself helps people in this order: family, students, colleagues, everyone else. He prioritizes by using this lineup, i.e., if a student asks him for something he considers, 'Will this affect my time with/relationship with my family?' If not, he helps out. And so on.
  • He says successful givers "also differ in when they help – they're not willing to drop everything." They will set aside windows of time to help others and spend the rest of the time on their own work. Some argue this is selfish (again, see Mrs. Moneypenny) but the airplane analogy works here: put on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you. Those who spend too much time giving "are at risk of burnout and underperforming."
  • "Givers who focus on themselves as well as others, because they sustain their energy and effectiveness, they are able to give more."
  • Grant advocates 'chunking' your giving rather than 'sprinkling' it over the course of a day. He says if you devote a particular day or part of a day to helping people out, you get "a significant boost in energy and happiness." When you 'sprinkle' your giving, there's no noticeable difference in the way you feel (thus you're less likely to keep it up - at least that's my conclusion).
  • "Another mistake failed givers make is they confuse giving with being nice. Agreeableness is the tendency to be warm, friendly, welcoming," but, he says, we're too apt to take those characteristics at face value when we shouldn't. And, conversely, to undervalue what he calls "disagreeable givers". These are "the people you’d describe as prickly, sometimes a bit too blunt, maybe they give blunt feedback, but they do so with others’ best interests at heart."

In short, it is wonderful to be able to help others - it gives you a warm glow (especially when they're openly grateful, but Grant warns us not to base our giving on this), and, often, the person you've helped will help you in turn. And it seems those of us who give of ourselves in just the right way may actually be more successful at work as well.

Right. I'm off to help someone out.