We all know what successful people look like. They are are the ones who do whatever it takes, the ones with the sharp elbows, the ones who know how to take what is theirs. But there is a different, better path to success, argues Adam Grant, in “Give and Take.” Grant, a professor of management at Wharton, shares research which suggest that some of the most successful people — not just in business, but in many realms — are in fact classic “givers,” people who genuinely try to help those around them. How could this be? He took questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Cook: How do you think that Americans tend to think about the personality of successful people, and what first led you to suspect that this may be wrong?
Grant: Many of us assume that to achieve success, it’s necessary to get at least as much from other people as we contribute to them. If we’re too generous, others will take advantage of us, and we’ll end up running out of time and energy to work toward our own goals. I first started questioning this assumption when I was a senior in high school. I had just applied to Harvard, and I was assigned to an interview with a lawyer named John Gierak. He was extremely successful, with many awards and an impressive track record of representing influential clients. My interview was scheduled to be 30 minutes, but John spent several hours with me, going far above and beyond the call of duty to learn about my values and passions. It was clear that he was genuinely concerned about helping every applicant put his or her best foot forward. I walked away with a clear sense that he had been operating this way all his life, and that it was part of what made him such a trustworthy colleague and committed advocate for clients. Later, this experience and many others like it led me to wonder whether we had it backward when we thought about the link between success and giving. Most of us assume that people achieve success and then start giving back. But what if the opposite is true? Could it be that giving first actually leads people to succeed later?
Cook: And then where did you go with this question? What research suggested to you that it might be true?
Grant: In one of my own studies, hundreds of salespeople completed a questionnaire on their commitment to helping coworkers and customers, and I tracked their sales revenue over the course of a year. I found that the most productive salespeople were the “givers”—those who reported the strongest concern for benefiting others from the very beginning of their jobs. They earned the trust of their customers and the support of their coworkers. Similar patterns emerged in a number of other fields, and before long, I had many data points showing that the most successful people in a wide range of jobs are those who focus on contributing to others. The givers often outperform the matchers—those who seek an equal balance of giving and getting—as well as the takers, who aim to get more than they give.
Cook: But aren’t some people who give a lot genuinely taken advantage of? Don’t they end up exhausted?
Grant: This is the sharper edge of generosity: I found that the salespeople with the lowest revenue were also passionate about helping coworkers and customers. In fact, across a number of jobs, givers were overrepresented at the top and the bottom of various success metrics. Some of the generous salespeople were exploited by coworkers who stole their customers, others spent too much time with individual customers to be productive, and many just burned themselves out.
Cook: Being a “giver” is a gamble, then, isn’t it? How do you guarantee that you end up being one the successful givers, and not among the legions of the burnt out?