Grant: I see it less as a gamble, and more as a question of strategy. Ultimately, the biggest difference between the givers who rise to the top and those who sink to the bottom is the boundaries that they set. Givers who burn out consistently put the interests of others ahead of their own, sacrificing their energy and time and undermining their ability to give in the long run. Those who maintain success are careful to balance concern for others with their own interests. Instead of helping all of the people all of the time, they help many of the people much of the time. They’re careful to give in ways that are high benefit to others but not exceedingly costly to themselves.
Cook: What is 'the power of powerless communication'?
Grant: Powerless communication involves expressing vulnerability—talking tentatively, expressing doubt, admitting weaknesses, and deferring to others’ opinions. Most people believe that communicating powerlessly undermines our ability to influence others, because it signals that we lack confidence and authority. To be persuasive, we need to strike a dominant pose and speak with conviction… don’t we?
Not so fast, says a brilliant study by Alison Fragale. Imagine that you’re choosing between two different real estate agents. You overhear both agents suggesting that a client lower the listing price on a house. The first agent communicates powerfully: “You need to list your house at a lower price.” The second agent speaks more powerlessly: “Do you think you should list your house at a lower price?”
Fragale finds that people prefer to work with the second agent. Powerless communication sends a message that the agent cares about our interests, values our input, and respects our preferences. When it comes to collaboration, we’re actually more inclined to hire, promote, and value people who communicate powerless.
Cook: But is this what we are looking for in leaders? Doesn’t sending signals of weakness undermine a leader’s ability to command respect?
Grant: Like almost every answer in social science, it depends. In this case, the contingency is the nature of the vulnerability. We actually grant the most respect to leaders who appear human and open to input, but this doesn’t mean it’s wise to appear weak in all domains or receptive to suggestions on every decision. Rather, it’s important for leaders to be transparent about their strengths and their vulnerabilities, and to seek out ideas and feedback when decisions are important or ambiguous.
Cook: What can organizations do to encourage more of their employees to be “givers”?
Grant: It often starts with hiring. Research suggests that it’s less important to screen in givers, and more important to screen out takers. A few bad apples can spoil the barrel; as the psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues put it, “Bad is stronger than good.” One cutthroat or competitive colleague often has a stronger negative impact than the positive impact of a generous colleague.
Once an organization is composed mostly of givers and matchers, it can be quite effective to create marketplaces for help exchange, so that people know what others need and how they can contribute.
You can assess your own give and take style at www.giveandtake.com
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.