There's a reason why the biblical phrase "it is better to give than to receive" is so popular. Just ask Wharton business professor Adam Grant. While hard work, talent, and luck matter, Grant's new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success suggests the most successful people in business have something else in common: They give back.

The book, released on April 9, has the markings of a classic: accessible writing, incredibly detailed research, character-driven examples. (I just finished it in a two-day sprint, and I highly recommend it.) One of the themes of Give and Take is that giving tends to increase overall collaboration. In a creative company, for example, when people share ideas with the group and worry less about taking credit for projects, it helps the entire business be more successful.

Recently, I caught up with the author and asked if he could contextualize some of the ideas in the book for small businesses and start-ups.

What are some practical ways an entrepreneur can give back?
Here are some of my favorite tactics:

  • Connect: Introduce two people, highlighting why they might benefit from knowing each other, and then get out of the way.
  • Share knowledge: Provide knowledge or information to those who might find it useful.
  • Help: Ask colleagues or clients about their current projects and challenges, and offer to pitch in to assist with a problem or fulfill a need.
  • Organize: Step up to coordinate initiatives or gatherings.
  • Recognize: Acknowledge someone whose contributions have gone unnoticed, perhaps by writing a letter to his or her manager.

Why is giving back particularly critical at a start-up?
In an early-stage start-up, I would put a premium on what Richard Hackman and Richard Walton called functional leadership--taking the initiative to do whatever needs to be done for the organization to succeed, even if it falls outside the scope of a job description.

Start-ups also need employees to share knowledge freely and widely. Many mature, established organizations can outsource innovation, buying ideas rather than making them in-house. In a start-up, creative ideas are the lifeblood of success, and some excellent new research led by Matej Cerne shows that when employees hide knowledge, their colleagues punish them by withholding knowledge from them. Since what goes around often comes around, one of the best ways to encourage colleagues to share creative ideas is to take the lead by sharing ideas with them first.

At the same time, you talk about how givers can sometimes be the least successful. How does giving go wrong?
The telltale sign that a company is giving too much is when people are helping others at the expense of achieving common goals or advancing the company's interests. One of the red flags that givers are sinking to the bottom is the inability to make progress in their own work. When employees are putting colleagues or clients first to the point that they run out of time and energy to accomplish individual tasks, I become concerned.

Tell me about some of the more noteworthy stories you've heard about giving in the workplace.
One of my favorites is from Brooke Allen, a quantitative trader who lives by the credo of helping others. He posted an ad for an administrative assistant, looking for "a good heart and a giving personality." He gathered 22 candidates, and instead of hiring one of them, he invited them all to help each other find jobs. "If you get everyone else a job," Brooke said, "I'll have no choice but to hire you."

Another favorite is Anna Gauthier, a senior vice president at Lincoln Financial. Early in her career, she was working at a company with forced performance ranking systems. One of her team members was ranked near the bottom and had been out on short-term disability. Anna was convinced that she didn't deserve to be forced into such a low ranking. She felt so strongly about the matter that she wrote a letter to her boss's boss, offering to trade her own higher ranking for her team member's lower ranking. Her advocacy spurred corrective action: The ranking was restored, and that team member is still working at the firm today.

How are you applying the ideas in the bookto your own life?
After doing the research and interviewing many successful givers, I realized I wasn't very thoughtful about which requests for help I accepted. Now, I'm much clearer about who I want to help: My family comes first, followed by my students, and then my colleagues. If I have free time after contributing to those three groups, I'm happy to be helpful to others if I can.

I've also become more discerning about the types of requests I fulfill. Instead of helping indiscriminately, I ask whether I can have a unique impact in this situation: Do I have knowledge, skills, expertise, or connections that would be especially meaningful here? If so, I aim to tackle the request myself; if not, I work on connecting the requestor to someone who is better suited to provide help.