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?

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.