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In the company of givers and takers

Adam Grant
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Can managers promote generosity without cutting into productivity and undermining fairness?

Every day, employees make decisions about whether to act like givers or like takers. When they act like givers, they contribute to others without seeking anything in return. They might offer assistance, share knowledge or make valuable introductions. When they act like takers, they try to get other people to serve their ends while carefully guarding their own expertise and time.

Organisations have a strong interest in fostering giving behaviour. A willingness to help others achieve their goals lies at the heart of effective collaboration, innovation, quality improvement and service excellence. In workplaces where such behaviour becomes the norm, the benefits multiply quickly.

But can managers promote generosity without cutting into productivity and undermining fairness? How can they avoid creating situations where already-generous people give away too much of their attention while selfish co-workers feel they have even more licence to take? How, in short, can they protect good people from being treated like doormats?

Part of the solution must involve targeting the takers in the organisation — providing incentives for them to collaborate and establishing repercussions for refusing reasonable requests. But, even more important, my research suggests, is helping the givers act on their generous impulses more productively. Givers are better positioned to succeed when they distinguish generosity from three other attributes — timidity, availability and empathy — that tend to travel with it.

Overcoming timidity

Let’s begin with timidity. This trait needn’t have anything to do with generosity, but it often plagues givers. Timidity is the opposite of assertiveness, which is easy to associate with takers: They know what they want, and they’re not shy about demanding it. For a giver, however, the goal of acting in others’ interests can make it difficult to assert one’s own. Managers can help the givers in their organisations tease the two concepts apart and learn techniques for appropriate self-advocacy that feel compatible with generosity.

I saw a deft combination of generosity and assertiveness in action when a management consultant I’ll call Erica put in for a transfer from Southeast Asia to New York. Erica was and is the model of a giver. After living abroad for several years, Erica was ready to return to the United States. Her ideal location was New York City, because she had family nearby. But she knew that the firm had a shortage of consultants in Asia and was overstaffed in New York. Like many givers, Erica was unwilling to impose on her employer and felt uncomfortable putting her own interests first.

To strengthen her resolve, I suggested that instead of advocating only for herself, she should consider how the request would benefit others. She thought about how much it would mean to her family to have her close to home. Suddenly Erica became more assertive: She initiated a conversation with a manager about her interests and successfully negotiated a transfer to New York.

By explaining that she wanted to be closer to her family in New York, Erica made use of a “relational account” — a justification or an explanation for a personal request that emphasises concern for others. This example suggests a strategy for managers who want to make sure the givers in their organisations don’t succumb to timidity: They can teach employees who are uncomfortable with self-advocacy to shift their frames of reference and advocate for others using relational accounts.

Setting boundaries

As we interact with networks of hundreds or thousands of people, numerous requests for help land on our desks. Many givers are inclined to accommodate them all — neglecting their own responsibilities, setting themselves up for burnout or leaving their time at the mercy of takers.

At one Fortune 500 software company, a group of engineers worried that they had taken generosity too far. They had developed a norm of dropping everything to help their colleagues. The team was working on the code for a new laser printer, but frequent interruptions were delaying progress. Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor, proposed a solution. The engineers could set aside windows during which they were not allowed to interrupt one another. After some trial and error, the team earmarked Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. until noon for quiet time, leaving the rest of the week for collaborative work, including helping one another solve problems. Perlow found that the quiet time yielded above-average productivity for 65 per cent of the engineers. Three months later the team launched the laser printer, right on schedule.

Perspective taking

Empathy is the third trap givers need to avoid. Although it is an admirable trait and a source of much useful insight, it can make life harder for givers. If a busy person is easily moved by empathy to spend time doing favours he or she cannot afford, that person runs a serious risk of being manipulated by shrewd takers. When people feel empathy, they’re willing to put others’ needs ahead of their own.

By teaching people to be perspective takers — not just empathisers — when they are called on for favours, managers can help givers avoid letting opportunities pass them by. At the same time, they can expect more-productive allocations of time that will benefit the enterprise as a whole.

Leaders and managers can ask employees to gather information about a counterpart’s interests and to make a list of their own interests as well. From there, employees can examine the overlap to generate ideas for what negotiation experts call compatible issues and logrolling. Compatible issues are points at which interests align, and logrolling means that employees will let a counterpart win on issues that matter less to them so that they can win on the issues they value most.

There are three payoffs associated with teaching employees about the power of agency, boundaries on availability and perspective taking. The first is saving your best employees — those who exemplify collegial generosity — from being taken advantage of and helping them to gain stature as successful givers instead. The second is enabling employees who fear the risks of giving to contribute more to others and to the success of the enterprise. The third is creating a culture of and reputation for generosity that attracts more givers to your organisation and appeals less to takers.

Adam Grant is a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and the author of “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.”

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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