Neelima Mahajan Authors

Adam Grant on Why Giving is Good

July 16, 2014

Giving is good, we have all been told. It makes you a good person and it is the right thing to do. Now Adam Grant, Professor of Management at Wharton School of Business, is joining the chorus. Grant, who among other things is also a professional magician and a former All-American and Junior Olympic springboard diver, has studied different styles of reciprocity. He divides people into three categories: givers, takers and matchers.

All through life we come across people who fall into these categories. Takers, often the most hated, focus on getting as much as they can from others. They feel entitled to receiving more than they give. They often try to walk away with the majority of credit while working on collaborative projects. Givers, on the other hand, help others without any strings attached. That might involve sharing knowledge, being a mentor, or introducing people who can benefit from connecting. Matchers sit in between: they believe in quid pro quo and in trading favors evenly.

As Grant dug deeper, he found a correlation between giving and success: contrary to popular belief, giving actually helps you succeed in the long run. Grant’s book on this theme, Give and Take, has scorched bestseller charts and received much critical acclaim.

In this interview, Grant explains why giving is a good thing, and also when too much giving can be counterproductive.

Q. From your perspective, why was it important to study reciprocity styles?

A. Particularly in the west, we tend to look at success driven by individual forces like hard work, talent, and luck. We overlook the ways that our interactions and relationships with other people shape what we achieve. I was excited to understand that.

The other reason was because I was struck by the sheer number of people who said: ‘My goal professionally is to be able to make a difference and give back, but I also refuse that because I’m afraid it will sacrifice my success.’ They basically become takers or matchers and show that they can accumulate enough wealth and power. They have the freedom to start giving back. I had evidence that the fear about the consequences of giving might be misguided. I was struck by the fact that although there are people who succeed first and then start giving back, it seems to be more common that people who give first succeed later.

Q. Do you believe in karma, in the idea that what goes around comes around?

A. Yes and no. I’m trying to use science to explain why karma happens and also when it happens. My view is that when karma occurs, it’s usually because most people are matchers. Matchers believe in a just world—what goes around comes around—so matchers hate seeing takers succeed. That’s unfair. They also hate seeing givers fail, because people ought to get rewarded because they are generous. So matchers often become the karma police. They go out of way to make sure that takers’ reputations are known, so that other people can protect themselves.

They are also very motivated to spread the reputation of givers, so that givers benefit from their action of helping, caring and compassion. If you are in an organization where there are a lot of matchers, you actually are more likely to see what looks like karma.

Q. Does the idea of giving intersect in any way with the concept of ‘servant leadership’, an idea in which the leader puts the needs and development of others first?

A. There is a point for conversion for sure. Servant leaders tend to be givers. Givers often embody servant leadership which is again, more like saying ‘when I lead, I’m going to put other people’s interest ahead of my own’.

I actually had a mixed reaction to the language of servant leadership because it suggests self-sacrifice. I think that’s a wrong approach because if you sacrifice yourself for others, you put yourself as the doormat. Successful givers are more likely to look for ways in which they can align their interest with others.

Q. Are the three reciprocity types—givers, takers and matchers—hardwired personality traits or does our style change from one situation to another?

A. I would say exactly halfway in between. If you look at the data, there is a personality component in that. If you are a giver in one role of a relationship, you’re more likely to be one in another. There is a general trait that givers tend to have in common like empathy or feeling a sense of responsibility. There is also a lot of fluctuation. We all have moments where we give, where we take, and where we match.

For me, your style is how you treat most of the people most of the time as you make different choices. If a taker changes their tune and says, ‘Instead of trying to get something, I’m going to propose a trade’, or: ‘I’m going to offer something without asking or expecting anything in return’, if you make those choices repetitively in different ways, then your style can change over time.

Q. In your book you say we often categorize givers as chumps and doormats. If giving is such a good thing, why do givers get such a bad deal?

A. A lot of people are afraid because of takers. Many people overestimate the number of takers because there is a lot of evidence that they are bad and stronger than the good psychologically. The worse acts of selfishness often get burnt into our memories more vividly than some of the greatest acts of generosity. A lot of people just get scared away— either they are victims of takers or they have experienced their extreme selfishness.

A lot of people confuse being a taker with being a narcissist. They think that they have to say yes to all the people all the time with all the requests. That is the recipe for becoming a doormat: burning yourself out and running into a bad deal. People should recognize early on that just because you are motivated and help others, doesn’t mean you have to become somebody who dumps everything to help anyone who asks no matter what. Most successful givers are a lot more thoughtful and selective about whom, how and when they help, so that they are not being overly generous to takers. They tend to choose a couple of ways of helping that they enjoy, which is more likely to make giving energizing and efficient rather than distracting from their tasks.

Also be careful of the block-out time to say: ‘I have my own priority and ambition. I need to get my own work done. Proceeding with that, I will also help others in separate periods of time.’

Q. But there is also this temptation when you see takers winning as well.

A. Yes. That’s part of the other reason that people move in the taker direction. They look at the hierarchy. In most organizations, successful takers are the most visible people. Even if the dominant [style] in your organization is matching or giving, the takers are really credited and in the spotlight. It’s easier to spot them. Takers rise quickly but they also fall quickly. It’s a lot harder to sustain success as a taker than as a giver or a matcher, because most people are matchers and matchers are often on a mission to take down takers.

New evidence suggests that, in fact, takers are also motivated to eliminate takers. If you are a cheater, you want to be the only one who cheats because otherwise cheating doesn’t give you any advantage. The takers are the ones who say, ‘I’d want to be the only taker in the system or that won’t help maintain my success’. So takers not only pull off the matchers but other takers as well.

Takers burn a lot of bridges. They destroy their relationships and reputations At some level, if you are a successful taker, people are gunning for you. If you are a successful giver, people are more likely to be rooting for you. I think that just made it easier to succeed.

Q. If I am a giver, is there any way that I can recognize the point where giving becomes not so much of a good thing, where I move from being a smart giver to being a doormat?

A. The easiest sign is when you start keeping scores. Most givers prefer not to keep track of the help they give. They don’t feel that other people owe them. But when things get out of balance, most of us have our basic matcher instinct kick in. As you start to notice that things are out of balance or feel resentful of the people that you are helping, that probably is the sign things are going towards the wrong direction.

Related to that, if you start feeling out of energy or exhausted, you may be stretching yourself too far. The sign that things are going well is that people are coming to you with meaningful requests, and they are actually relying on your expertise and your interest. [But when] people are coming to you with all kinds of things that you are not actually uniquely qualified [to deal] with, that’s an early warning signal.

Q. Are there any techniques one can use to become a smart giver?

A. The ‘five-minute favor’ is one of my favorite techniques. So many people think that they have to be Mother Teresa or God to be a giver, but that’s not sustainable for most of us. The point of the successful serial entrepreneur Adam Rifkin is you can just become a giver by doing more ‘five-minute favors’ every week. It’s just a way of adding high value to other people’s lives at a low personal cost. Adam’s favorite is to make introductions. He’s made three introductions every day for the past seven years. That’s added tremendous value to other people’s lives. Through the introductions he has made, dozens of companies have been formed.

Smart givers end up consolidating their helping so they try to make it more efficient. A former student served in the military and then he worked for a major tech company. A lot of military veterans would reach out to him for career advice on making the transition from military to business. He was taking more than a hundred calls per month in his free time. He became smarter about this. He scheduled an equivalent of virtual ‘office hours’ once a week. Instead of having the same conversation with 20 people each week, he had this same conversation once with 20 people.

Q. In most organizations, the reward systems are geared around individual performance and in such cases, giving does not seem like such a great idea.

A. Organizations often create a work system where they are evaluating and promoting individual accomplishments. That is not the most fertile environment for givers because it’s very easy for takers to maximize their individual success and climb up the ladder. I’d like to see more organizations that have a dual matrix that values on the one hand, individual achievement, and on the other hand, how your achievement benefits others. While being efficient and successful, you are making others more successful. The data shows that in the long run an organization that can balance its considerations actually achieves higher performance.

If you are stuck in an organization which basically rewards takers, the first thing you have to do is align your giving with your organizational goals. You are not just helping indiscriminately, but you are focusing your energy and contributions on the most direct ways that you can make your organization more successful.That’s more likely to get rewarded.

The other thing you can do is to build a protective community of givers and matchers. Figure out who the non-takers are in your organization and bring them together to try to support and help each other. In that way you can shield yourself.

Q. Are there any companies that have successfully implemented such measures?

A. Yes, one of my favorite examples is Corning Incorporated that makes Gorilla Glass for iPhones and iPads. The highest achievement you can get as an engineer or a scientist at Corning is to be named a fellow. Fellows get jobs for life and a lab for life. They have a huge amount of freedom and resources to work on the most exciting innovation projects that are meaningful to them and the company.

There are two categories of the matrix that they use to evaluate the chance of becoming a fellow. One, being the lead author on a patent that’s driven enormous revenue for the company. Two, whether you are contributing to other people’s success along with driving your own success. One of the things they look at is if you are a supporting author on other people’s patents. It often takes 8-10 years to get a patent through [so you] help others for 10 years and get a little bit of the secondary credit. Very rarely [do] takers wait patiently. You have to be a great individual achiever but you also have to be someone who helps people around you to be a fellow. They weigh these two measures equally.

Q. What is your favorite example of a giver?

A. There is a woman called Kat Cole. She is a single mother who has three jobs to support her family. The day that Kat was old enough to work, she started working at a restaurant. She became the first person in her family to go to college. But she was so busy helping others in the restaurant that she had to drop out college because her grades suffered. Then one day in the restaurant a cook quit, so Kat volunteered to help cook. Another day the manager quit. She organized the schedule so everybody would know when to come to work. She volunteered to help behind the scenes without asking or receiving any credit or recognition. And it’s a story that really tells the horrible downside of giving. Kat was so helpful that she dropped out of college. But as we know, giving can be inefficient in the short run but extremely valuable in the long run. In Kat’s case, she was invited to apply to open up the first restaurant in Australia. She was working in the US at the time.

She said she wasn’t qualified because she had less education and less experience than all the other candidates. But because she has found every way to help all the colleagues, she was the only person in the restaurant that has done every job. They were giving her this position because she is more knowledgeable and more skilled than everyone else. One of the things that drives us crazy is that givers actually have a knowledge and skills advantage. They learn more and build more expertise than matchers and takers because their time spent solving other people’s problems enabled them to gain the whole set of insights, ideas and information that nobody has.

Kat went to Australia, opened up a new restaurant, and did the same thing in Asia. Then she went back to the US for corporate training. Her career just skyrocketed. At the age of 32, she was named the President of a billion-dollar brand called Cinnabon. If you ask her what made her successful, she will tell you that more than anything else is the fact that she was a giver.

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