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Why the Most Successful Leaders Are Givers

Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan talks to organizational psychologist Adam Grant about his new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

Author Adam Grant.

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Expect to sit through heated conversations in the next few months about who in your circle is generous to a fault, who expects a quo for every quid, and who is out for what he can get.

That's how Adam Grant categorizes the ways people use interactions to succeed--or not--in their careers and lives. Grant's book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, is already garnering plaudits for the rigor of its science, the freshness of its arguments, and the pleasure of its prose.

Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan spoke to Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, about how giving can help you lead. 

Is it hard for a top leader to be a giver? Because by concentrating on the specific needs of a few he risks letting down the many? 

That's a really interesting question. I would say it is harder and easier. Leaders do have broader networks and more requests and stakeholders. The sheer load makes it more challenging to contribute to and support everyone. But leaders have two advantages. First, it's easier for leaders to multiply themselves and create networks of givers. To build cultures where that's the norm and, as a result, to be able to delegate a lot of the giving to people around and below them. That provides an opportunity to spread their giving farther than people who are not at the top. 

So it's possible to delegate generosity?

Maybe "delegate" is not the best word. It's possible to spread it. You model it, and that produces legions of matchers who find the best way to pay it back is to pay it forward. I was impressed by how many leaders I interacted with had encouraged their first groups of mentees to mentor people below them and start these pay-it-forward chains. It's a little bit of delegating. But more role-modeling. 

What's the second advantage leaders have in being givers? 

The other advantage leaders have is it's a lot easier to do these five-minute favors, which are very short bursts of energy and attention that leave a lasting impact on people. In my first real job, when I was about a month in, the president stopped by, shook my hand, introduced himself, and said, "I just want to get together for coffee." We probably had a 15-minute interaction. And the fact that he knew who I was and cared about me and took a personal interest stuck with me for months. I decided that I didn't want to let this guy down. Leaders' status and stature makes it possible to quickly recognize and notice people. Then you're a lot less likely to have hours and hours of the day when all those people are seeking you out. 

How do you balance the desire to be a giver with the need to make tough decisions?

It can be difficult, especially for the agreeable givers who really care about being nice and polite. One of the things that impressed me when I was doing research is how many givers in leadership roles drew a sharp distinction between being liked and being respected. They said you don't want to wander around thinking that being a giver means everybody loves you. Then you end up being this insufferable people-pleaser who never makes the right or the tough decisions. Being respected is about doing what is right for the organization or the group as opposed to the individual or certain constituents. There's a lot of wisdom in that. 

Is laying someone off harder on the givers of the world?

It is often hard for givers to do layoffs and to make unpopular decisions. But there are a lot of givers who are able to make those decisions precisely because they are looking out for the greatest good. The "greatest good" is probably too flowery. They are at least trying to keep the interest of the majority in mind.

So the John Stuart Mill approach to niceness?

I became a big fan of Abraham Lincoln as I was looking for examples of politician-givers. In her book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about how, when he started his presidency, Lincoln would literally sit down with every person who came knocking at the White House. People in his own administration criticized him for catering to the whim of a suffering soul while overlooking the needs of the country. He resolved to set boundaries and ask himself, "Is this where I can have the greatest impact?" I think that's a critical question for a leader.

Can you incorporate giving into job and compensation design? 

I think that's really hard. A lot of my work has documented the benefits of designing jobs so that people get to see their end users. Especially for technology-oriented firms, that is really important and often overlooked. Beyond that, I would love organizations to figure out: "Are there ways that we can be more effective in recognizing givers and allowing them to see the everyday effects of their small contributions?" Peer bonuses, when managed well, are a great step.

People who run health-care companies can bring in patients to tell stories and motivate the troops. But what if you make plumbing supplies?

Those kinds of customer stories are so much in the water in the helping professions and service organizations. But that means they may also feel less novel. "Yeah, I get that we're helping kids. Now let me get on and do my job." If it happened in other kinds of organizations it could be more surprising or memorable. But it can be hard, especially if your products and services don't make a difference. My data show that the effect is driven less from having a life-changing impact on an end user and more by seeing and knowing what your impact is. If your organization relies on customer service and you've had really bad feedback, bring in a miserable customer to share his or her story so people understand what they can do better. That's also a viable intervention.

You talk about "powerless communication:" the idea that people often prefer those who speak tentatively and stumble a bit to more assertive speakers. I've noticed that myself. In interviews, people warm up to me more when I stammer like Columbo. But how do leaders square that with being confident and passionate and strong storytellers?

The best way to think about this is to take a page from [Yale School of Management professor] Victor Vroom's model of participative decision-making. It looks at situations in which you want to be authoritative and strong and then at other situations where you want to be more receptive to input and listen to others' ideas and ask really good questions. He's got a nice decision tree that includes questions like "How expert am I in this particular problem?" and "Is the efficiency of the decision important?" and "How much is buy-in from stakeholders important?" It's a situational thing, and there's no reason why both styles can't walk hand-in-hand. I often encourage leaders to tell great stories. And after they've told those stories to ask questions and hear people's ideas. 

There's a wonderful paper by [Hebrew University professor] Boas Shamir, who has done the single-most successful work on charisma. He argues that charisma is a property of social distance. When leaders are speaking to a large audience or to people many levels below in a setting where they are up on a pedestal, that's where the storytelling and powerful communication work. If you actually have a relationship with your leader, it would be awkward and uncomfortable if you sat down with him and he tried to inspire you.

Entrepreneurs are encouraged to grow their start-ups by making a long series of "asks:" for money and sales and beta testers and free office space and everything else. Does that predispose them to a "taker" approach?

I have a couple of reactions to that. Point one: there is a huge difference between "receiving" and "taking." Taking is trying to claim value from people with very self-serving intentions and very little willingness to pay it backward or forward. Receiving is what makes the giving side of an exchange work. There are people willing to accept the contributions of others and either respond with gratitude and appreciation or try to model that in future interactions, when they are in the position to give.

Point number two is that a lot of the asking that entrepreneurs do is not self-serving. It's on behalf of the group of people working for them or with them. Some entrepreneurs keep themselves motivated by framing it as, "I am asking so I can give more--to my employees, to my customers, to other stakeholders I have made commitments to." That is probably the healthiest way to approach the asking process. Entrepreneurs who go in with that mindset are in the best position to sustain the asking to grow their companies and ultimately build a culture they can be proud of.

Just to be clear: according to your work, you don't actually have to be selfless and generous and interested in others, right? You just have to act that way?

No, no, no! There are takers out there who are really good fakers. But the evidence is very compelling. People are pretty good at seeing the self-serving motives behind facades of generosity. Sometimes fakers get away with it for the short run, but not the long run. Anyway, trying to fake generosity is more work than living it. You would have to change the way everybody in your world perceives you so that your prior reputation won't call the façade into question. You would have to go around helping all these people who can never help you and create this smokescreen. You would have to watch everything you say and do.

But you've just written a book that advises people to act like givers if they want to be successful. So aren't you, in essence, telling takers to change? You have to assume some readers will just be going through the motions.

Ah, this is a great Columbo turn of events, isn't it? I was really torn about this when I wrote the book. On the one hand, you are going to have a bunch of takers who are now going to be better fakers because they are armed with the knowledge. Maybe there will be fewer of those and more people who adopt what you are articulating, which is a matcher's theory of giver success. These people will become better matchers: strategically helping the people they want help from in the future. But I don't think that works as well, because people tend to see through the motives. You leave a very transactional feeling when you help somebody to get something in return, as opposed to trying to use your knowledge, skills, and connections to benefit other people when you can.

That being said, I think if we got a few more takers to spend time helping there are upsides to that as well as downsides. I worry about them duping people. But I'm also happy to hear that takers might carry part of the load.

As I recall, after the movie Pay It Forward came out, there was a brief surge of people doing nice things for each other. Do you predict something similar if Give and Take sells well?

That's one of those existential questions for an author. If people read your book and agree with some of the ideas in it, will they actually change their behavior? Maybe. I think what's more likely is it will reach people who have had moments when they've acted like takers and gotten really negative feedback from it. The book will help them understand why and give them an alternative course of action.

I've been giving talks for several months on some of the core ideas in the book. And a bunch of people have reached out and said, "I've been a taker or a matcher most of my life, and I really want to give back and try to inspire more people to live this way. So I'm going to create a group that will invite people to ask us for help. And our job is to try to help them." I think that will probably happen in some pockets of the world.

IMAGE: Courtesy Subject
Last updated: Apr 5, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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