Adam Grant, PhD, is one of those people you want to resent: At 32, he's the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he has the highest course evaluation ratings of any teacher and where he's never taught a class that didn't win an Excellence in Teaching Award.
He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, earned his PhD in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan in less than three years and has published more than 60 journal articles in his young career.
He's well-rounded, too: He's been an all-American diver (athletic, check), professional magician (charismatic, check) and is married with two young girls (loving and lovable, check, check).
But you can't resent him because, darn it, you like him.
According to Grant, being genuinely giving isn't just icing on the cake — it's why there's a cake at all. In his recent book, "Give and Take" (which is, naturally, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller), Grant compiles his and others' organizational psychology research on work motivation, pro-social behaviors, leadership and more, and sprinkles in stories of successful businesspeople and organizations, to make a compelling case that you don't have to be ruthless to get ahead at work. Instead, he says, techniques such as doing "five-minute favors" for others and reconnecting with loose acquaintances can reap long-term career rewards.
"There's reason to believe when you adopt a consistent stance of pro-social behavior, that has a profound effect on the depth and the breadth of your relationships," Grant says, "and so you end up with a wider set of relationships and a richer, more meaningful set of connections."
Employers can advance their businesses by tapping into people's kindheartedness, too, he says. In a study he conducted during graduate school with a team of students, Grant found that campus call center workers primarily raising scholarship money brought in 171 percent more revenue each week after hearing how their work positively affected someone's life (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2007). In another study, Grant and David Hofmann, PhD, found that physicians and nurses used 45 percent more soap and hand-sanitizing gel next to signs that read "hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases," whereas a sign that swapped "patients" with "you" had no effect (Psychological Science, 2011).
"Psychologists tend to study the causes of pro-social behavior, not the consequences," he says. "What I've tried to do as an organizational psychologist is ask, ‘What are the implications of these behaviors for success?'"
The Monitor talked to Grant about what he's learned.
Why is this idea that the good guy can win so revolutionary?
I'm joining a long line of people who have said that giving is better than getting, but what's new about my book is that it's putting a science behind karma. There are a lot of people who believe that what goes around comes around, but we don't really know how and why that works, or more importantly, when that works — because sometimes what goes around doesn't come around. I find that if you want the good guys to win, it requires thoughtful strategies and a set of supportive conditions.
In your book, you group workers into three categories: The givers, the takers and the matchers. What does each of them look like?
The takers are the people who are trying to get as much as possible from others, and typically they don't want to give much back. The givers on the other end of the spectrum are the people who enjoy helping others and often do it without strings attached. The matchers are the people who fall in the middle, who try to maintain an even balance of give and take.
Your research has found that some givers rise to the top of organizations, but others sink to the bottom. Who's who?
The biggest differences have to do with whether or not you give in ways that are self-sacrificing. Selfless givers tend to fail, as they struggle to set boundaries. They put other people ahead of themselves almost all of the time and they're willing to drop their individual goals and ambitions and productivity for others.
The givers who end up succeeding are the ones who are careful to say, "I'm going to be clear about who I want to help and when and how I want to help them." Also, successful givers are much more likely to focus their giving on fellow givers and matchers, becoming a little more cautious when dealing with takers. It can be pretty risky to help takers who are willing to take advantage of you.
What can organizations do to cultivate a giver attitude among employees?
The first research-backed practice is selection. Many people assume the key is to hire people who already gravitate toward giving, but it's actually more important to screen out takers than to hire givers. The reason is that one bad apple can spoil the barrel; one good egg doesn't usually make a dozen.
Step two is making sure you create mechanisms to recognize and reward people who give, such as by allowing employees to nominate one another for company-wide recognition. In so many organizations, the most visible, successful people are takers who are really good at claiming credit and hogging the spotlight. To overcome this problem, we need to focus on promoting not just the people who have great individual results, but the people who actually make those around them better.
The third step is the most counter-intuitive — to encourage more help-seeking. There can be lots of givers without takers, but there can't be givers without receivers. We need people who are willing to be clear about what they need, articulate how others can be helpful and receive those contributions with gratitude. Otherwise, the givers in the organization never know who would benefit from their help and how. So, creating a culture of help-seeking and making it a sign of strength — as opposed to weakness — is a good way to create opportunities for people to give.
How have your findings changed your own behaviors?
As I did the research, I realized that I was falling victim to helping the people who had a history or reputation of being selfish. I've learned to be clearer about trying to help givers and matchers, and I'm much more cautious now about helping takers than I used to be.
I'm also much more likely now to ask people to help me help other people. When I first became a professor, I'd spend 30 to 60 minutes with each undergraduate who came to my office hours to prepare them for job interviews. As I taught more and larger classes, I couldn't do that with every student, and my knowledge became more dated — it had been longer since I had gone through that interview process and I felt less helpful than I used to be.
As I was doing my research, I read about the idea of creating a mentoring network with a pay-it-forward norm, and I started asking the students that I had helped with practice interviews if they would be willing to do that with my current students. The amazing thing was that a lot of students did it and I would get emails from them saying, "This is more fun and meaningful than my job. Can you send me more students to help?"
You've also been an all-American diver. How did being a giver help you succeed as an athlete?
Diving is a really tricky domain, because individual competition is zero-sum. When I tried to be a giver as a diver, I spent time informally coaching my peers. In some ways, that compromised a couple of moments of my own success. Then again, it's often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. In the long run, I think that I became a much better diver because I was trying to help other divers get better, and that led me to learn things that I could apply to my own diving.
What other research would you like to see done in this realm?
For me, the biggest unanswered question is: How do you turn a taker into a giver or a matcher? There's a lot of research on how you get people to give in certain situations, but I think we need to better understand how we inspire people who see the world as a dog-eat-dog, competitive, me-first place, to shift their mindsets more fundamentally. Another interesting direction would be to link styles of giving, taking and matching to communication. I was able to piece together some suggestive studies and stories to argue that takers are more likely to use powerful communication and givers are more comfortable with powerless communication. That's an opportunity to do research on the communication styles of givers and takers, and how our motives affect the way that we speak and the way we reveal our vulnerabilities or our strengths.
In the meantime, all I could think of to do was write a book arguing that giving is not as costly as you might think, and hope that might tilt some people. I'd love to see research on whether it does.
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