Generosity: the surprising secret to success & no-ick networking

We all know that nice guys finish last, right? You don’t have to look far in pop culture—think of The Social Network or the Steve Jobs biopic—to find success stories propelled by a certain ruthlessness.

But in his fascinating book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, organizational psychologist Adam Grant shares substantial research showing that those with an inclination to help others actually come out on top. In fact, Grant believes giving to be the greatest under-tapped source of motivation:

Success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?

Grant has identified three approaches to reciprocity in the workplace, separating employees into givers, matchers, and takers. While individuals aren’t statically bound to one type, their behavior in the workplace tends towards one of the three.

Givers are those who help others with no strings attached, freely sharing their knowledge and making introductions. They take a more collaborative approach, sharing credit and finding the time to mentor those junior to them.

Takers network to seek gain, “kissing up and kicking down”. Interestingly, Grant notes that takers often make the best first impression, as narcissists exude confidence.

Matchers, who make up the biggest category, are concerned with fairness: they seek to even out what they give and take with each person.

While all three types can achieve success, the research showed givers to be disproportionately represented in both the bottom and the top of the success spectrum. As giving does have a short-term cost in personal productivity, those who gave indiscriminately tend to get taken advantage of or burn out. However, givers who manage their energy stores are able to rise to the top, with a positive ripple effect. Grant writes:

This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

What distinguishes the successful givers from the pushovers then? Successful givers score high in other-interest but also in self-interest. Whereas we tend to think it has to be one or the other, success is driven by a hybrid engine of the two. As Grant explains:

If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.

He clarifies that being otherish is different from matching. While matchers give on a ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ basis, otherish folk give with no strings attached, while being careful not to overextend themselves. The trick is to avoid giving repeatedly to takers, who can be energy drainers. Knowing the effects of what they’re giving and choosing to give in ways they find rewarding also helps givers get energized rather than depleted.

It seems that networking from a position of how can I help? not only makes us more successful but happier as well. Grant’s favorite, and easily-actionable, idea was the five-minute favor, a ‘karmic micro-loan’ of sorts. The idea, spearheaded by entrepreneur Adam Rifkin, is that five minutes is enough to help someone, by, say, making an introduction. Rifkin commits to doing five five-minute favors per week.

Perhaps counterintuitively, chunking the five-minute favors (doing them back-to-back) has been shown to contribute more to happiness than sprinkling (spreading them out over the week). Grant himself, for example, chunks his office hours such that he helps his students one afternoon per week. And while he is hugely productive by any measure—researching, publishing, teaching, and spending time with his young family, in a New York Times Magazine interview, Grant raised the question about what we mean by productivity if we don’t make the time to pay it forward:

The truth is, I don’t care how many articles I publish or how many words I write. Productivity is an imperfect way of indexing how much I’m contributing, how I’m using my limited time to make the most difference.

In our busy world, and given our ingrained habits of competitiveness, it’s worthwhile to make giving a practice. Grant notes that people tend to overestimate how much they give and not necessarily give optimally. He suggests making asking people what they need help with—what are their challenges, what kinds of problems are they trying to solve—and ask yourself what (or whom) you know that could help with those problems.

In addition to the five-minute favors, Grant recommends taking the time to rekindle ‘dormant ties’. The argument is that while your current social circle likely knows many of the same people that you do, old friends or colleagues can offer fresh perspectives and serve as bridges to different networks. For other specific actions you can take to incite more giving in the workplace, including setting up a Love Machine…see here.

By developing and leveraging a rich network, those who give most generously can come out on top. As networking expert Keith Ferrazzi says,

I’ll sum up the key to success in one word: generosity. If your interactions are ruled by generosity, your rewards will follow suit.

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