Pure Genius

Q&A: How to perform 68% better than your coworker

Q&A: How to perform 68% better than your coworker

Posting in Education | From Issue 16 April 21 & 28, 2014

Conventional wisdom would have it that takers get ahead. But Wharton professor Adam Grant says success can belong to those who give -- if they're smart about it.

In his book, Give and Take, Wharton professor Adam Grant explains how givers (who help others without selfish motivation), takers (who take without giving in return) and matchers (who strive for equal trades) can affect our success – both as individuals and at the corporate level. 

Here's one tidbit: Evidence suggests that in sales, givers begin with 6 percent lower revenue than takers and matchers. But by the year's end, givers finish with 68 percent higher revenue.

I spoke with Grant, whose book was released in paperback last week, about famous givers, how to spot takers and fostering a “giving” culture in the workplace. Below are excerpts from our interview.

What in your background led you to research giving and taking?

There were so many points of convergence that it’s hard to know exactly why I became interested in this. Something that inspired me to do this research and eventually write the book was students coming to my office hours looking for career advice. Frequently their side of the conversation would go like this: ‘I want to make a difference and help other people. I’m going to try to maximize my wealth over the next 35 years and then start giving back.’ I had that conversation in different words and settings over a number of years.

I started to notice that the most successful people I knew didn’t wait to start giving until they were successful. They gave first and along the way. As I began to think more about that, it became clear there was an important message that wasn’t being delivered. I decided to try to build a case with evidence that might convince my students and eventually the [business] leaders I consulted.

When I emailed you to set up this interview, I received an auto-reply saying that a giver should expect a faster response than a taker. How do you assess a person as a giver or a taker?

I don’t actually make those judgments by email, although there have been some extreme examples on both sides. I put that out more because I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of emails that have come in. Most of them were people asking for things. On one hand, I want to be helpful. On the other, I want to follow my own advice to give to givers and matchers and not as much the takers. I also just had to prioritize.

One person wrote, ‘I want to be a millionaire. Are you one or do you know someone who is? Can you help me become one?’ I didn’t identify that person as a giver based on the way the request was formulated and the lack of rationale on how being a millionaire would allow that person to help others. In another example on the opposite extreme, I had someone say, ‘I think your work is important and I’d love to help. I know you’re probably getting a lot of people asking for things. Here’s my expertise. If I can help anyone who is contacting you, let me know.’ I thought that was a prototypical giver request.

Who are some famous givers and takers?

Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen Fund, saw the tremendous potential to use the tools of investment banking to end poverty. She started Acumen based on this idea. She made some personal sacrifices. Acumen has made more of a dent in fighting poverty in some of the world’s most impoverished areas than any organization on the planet. The personal time and energy she has invested in this and the expertise she has developed are totally in line with how a giver would approach this.

On a more personal level, someone who gives to the people they actually interact with, is Stephen King. He’s not someone who would immediately jump to mind. He’s sort of a lone contributor in much of what he does. But there was a post on [author-director] Clive Barker’s Facebook page on what he learned from Stephen King. King inspired him to be helpful to other people. Barker’s book was going nowhere, but King loved it. He said Barker was the future of horror [writing] and went out of his way to lend his reputation to a struggling author. Insiders in the publishing industry have said this is the kind of guy King is. He’s always championing unknown talent.

Takers? There are so many. One prominent example is Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced mayor of Detroit. He repurposed city resources for his own benefit.

In the workplace, you found that givers are on both the high and low ends of the success spectrum. Why is that?

Giving is often counterproductive in the short run and productive in the long run. It takes time for relationships to develop enough to provide value.

Giving is a lot more powerful in interdependent work than independent work. If you are collaborating in a team, there’s a lot more alignment between you being helpful and achieving your own goals than if you’re working on a job where you don’t need collaboration to get your work done. Then it might be more distracting.

The most important piece is about the choices people make when they give. The givers at the bottom tend to be selfless. They put other people’s needs so far ahead of their own that they tend to burn out and get exploited by takers. The givers at the top are more thoughtful. They give in ways that don’t come at their own expense. That might mean putting boundaries on time. It might mean being more selective about specializing in certain kinds of giving. Successful givers tend to give in ways that align with their interests and expertise. This makes giving more energizing and efficient as opposed to exhausting and distracting. Successful givers help givers who are likely to pay it forward and matchers who are likely to pay it back. Failed givers help in ways that aren’t efficient for them and get exploited by takers.

Givers can be stereotyped as pushovers -- and you found that while that’s sometimes the case, it doesn’t have to be. How can givers avoid being pushovers?

You can’t help all people all the time. You have to look for signals that someone will reciprocate or pay it forward.

One of the ways we get tricked is confusing agreeableness and disagreeableness with giving and taking. We tend to assume agreeable people are givers and people who are rough and gruff are takers. But outer veneer is different from inner motives. You can have agreeable takers. These are the people I call “fakers.” They’re warm and friendly, but still self-serving. Then you have disagreeable givers. They might come across as challenging and critical. But at the end of the day, they have the interests of others at heart. You have to distinguish between those two.

Should we all strive to be givers? Is it even possible to change your natural tendency in this area?

I don’t think everyone should try to become a giver. It’s a choice people should make as a function of their value system. One of the reasons I’d say more people could become givers than currently are is a lot of people hold strong values around giving and helping, but they fear it will compromise their success. One of the messages of the book is that it doesn’t have to have that effect. If you do it right, it can be an advantage as opposed to a liability. If you’re doing something that resonates with you for intrinsic reasons, then you could think about giving more. You can look for ways of adding high value to other people’s lives at a low cost. This could be sharing a bit of knowledge or making an introduction. Those things don’t take a lot of time and they can be more valuable to other people than they are costly to you.

Doing more favors like that is a way to shift in the giver direction. But resist the temptation to do one of those everyday. Research shows that people who do one random act of kindness every day for five days don’t benefit from the happiness and energy boost. But those who do all five in one day feel happier and more energized. Doing five in one day adds up and you feel like you’ve made a difference. When you do one a day, it’s more likely to be distracting. I’d suggest picking a day each week when you want to give more and lining up a few five-minute favors.

You’ve spoken to companies including Google, Apple and Facebook. What strategies, based on your research, could companies use to foster a “giving” culture and make employees more successful?

Think about hiring differently. The negative impact of takers on a culture typically far exceeds the positive impact of givers. Looking for ways to weed out takers in the hiring process would be my first step.

Find creative ways to reward and promote givers. Figure out the traces givers leave and how to measure the impact of their success on others, not just their individual success. We might evaluate managers not just on the results they produce or their teams produce, but also on their employee retention rate. Are their employees getting promoted to bigger and better jobs?

Spend time building a culture that promotes asking. For a lot of people, this is counterintuitive. You might think that if you want people to give, you should get them to offer. But there’s research to suggest that somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of all giving that happens in organizations starts with a request. If you want people to be givers, you need to have people who ask for help. The givers then know who needs help and what they’re asking for. You maximize the chances those people will end up giving.

What’s next for you and this work?

Right now, my primary focus is on figuring out how I can help the ideas in Give and Take get embedded in organizations, so givers are more likely to be rewarded and succeed. It’s a mix of speaking, research and consulting.

Photo: Adam Grant/Mike Kamber

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure