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Want to Get Ahead at Work? Give More Than You Get

Posted: 08/02/2013 5:16 pm

Are you a giver or a taker?

Not in the philanthropic sense, but in your interactions with others in your professional life. Givers look for opportunities to support colleagues, or even strangers while takers jealously guard their advances and look to take advantage of a situation. Personally, I vacillate between the two but my default setting is giving.

That's a difficult admission in the business world where "nice" is perceived as four-letter world. The truth is I am deeply committed to my own success but I don't view it a zero-sum game, where my gains came at another's expense. When I launched my own company, family and friends alike encouraged me to be more cut-throat, adhering to the long-held belief that givers don't get ahead. A variety of war-like metaphors littered their advice on how to thrive in an environment motivated -- according to them -- exclusively by greed and power. These aphorisms are ones many of us have heard before: Eat or be eaten. Take no prisoners. It's a dog-eat-dog world. The problem is, they just didn't resonate.

Thankfully, givers may be getting their moment in the spotlight and it couldn't come soon enough. Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, by Wharton professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant turns that commonly held belief about giving versus taking on its head and shows that when done properly, givers come out ahead. The idea appears to be resonating since the book hit both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller list.

In professional business settings, Mr. Grant divides people into three categories on the collaboration spectrum based on they interact with others: givers, matchers and takers. Takers, not surprisingly, put their own interests first. Takers may give to others, but only when the personal benefit outweighs the cost.

Givers pay more attention to what others need. They aren't self-sacrificing to a fault but they offer support, mentor and share credit without worrying about how they will personally gain from an interaction. Then there are the matchers, who try to achieve an equal balance of both giving and taking. While a person can shift between the three styles, one likely remains dominant.

According to Mr. Grant, givers find success because they build larger networks than matchers, who demand a quid pro-quo. Takers often build large networks, too, but that is often to compensate for the many bridges they burned in the process.

Inside organizations, givers not only find personal success; they turn into energizing forces that boost productivity among those around them. Citing research by University of Virginia professor Rob Cross and Andrew Parker of Stanford, this contrasts with the takers in organizations, who act like "black holes" sucking the energy from others.

Evolving from a taking to a giving corporate culture remains no easy feat, and it's a process Mr. Grant works with many organizations on resolving.

"A lot of people assume that if you want to create a culture of givers, you should hire givers but it's important to have takers," observed Mr. Grant. The key, he said, is rewarding and recognizing givers so "it's not just takers hogging all of the spotlight."

Not surprisingly, technology is paving the way for companies to embrace a more collaborative approach.

"Every worker is becoming an information worker and as technology continues to push throughout the business, collaboration is a big requirement," said Wayne Ingram, Canadian managing director of technology at Accenture. He observed that social media trends, once the domain of a younger generation, have coming knocking on the doors of big enterprises and employees are "asking to collaborate in ways similar to their personal lives.

"If you don't offer up support, you are somewhat of an outsider," he observed.

Before generously throwing away your time and resources, the extensive research Mr. Grant cites in his book shows that while givers often find themselves at the top of the success ladder, they also appear on the bottom. Giving can an asset, the book argues, but only when accomplished properly.

Some givers risk being viewed as pushovers, which can be career limiting. The ones that successfully avoid this trap have honed their ability to screen the sincerity of others.

Women, specifically, may be more likely to be taken for granted since social convention expects them to be more giving than men. This way, when men do take on the role of givers, their behaviour comes across as exceptional, which may get them further.

That warning aside, one of the most encouraging parts of the book details the professional life of David Hornik, a successful venture capitalist and unapologetic giver. At one point, when Mr. Hornik was asked wanted to achieve most in life, he said, "above all, I want to demonstrate that success doesn't have to come at someone else's expense." I couldn't agree more, Mr. Hornik. Let's see if the rest of the business world is listening.

 

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