Wondering How to Give Well? Hint: Until It Helps

UPDATED: November 23, 2022
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2014
Wondering How to Give Well? Hint: Until It Helps

A funny thing happens when you get a reputation—something Adam Grant, Ph.D., a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, knows well. His research has had far-reaching implications in the business world and has the kind of gee-whiz quality that, among the many references to his work, got it mentioned in David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. He speaks and consults for organizations including Google, the Gates Foundation and the NBA. But perhaps most importantly, Grant puts in long hours on his work—and even longer hours helping others with theirs.

Grant is a giver. Of time. Of effort. Of wisdom.

Giving in a professional environment is the core of his research, which studies meaningful work, helping behaviors, proactivity and initiative. It also provides the foundation of his book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (a New York Times bestseller in hardcover that received must-read praise from Fortune, Financial Times, The Washington Post and Oprah).

The research is eye-opening. As he details in his book, people can be broken into three personality groups: Givers, Takers and Matchers. Givers give, Takers are self-driven and use the efforts of others to gain, and Matchers meet in the middle. The main result of Grant’s research? “It turns out across many jobs and industries that the least successful people are the helpful and generous among us,” he says. “The Givers who devote a lot of their time and energy [to] helping others end up sacrificing that time and energy, and burning out or getting exploited by people who are willing to take advantage of their generosity. Good guys finish last.”

That would be depressing news for the good-hearted among us. But as they say in the infomercials, wait, there’s more.

“When you look at the most successful people,” Grant continues, “the big surprise is that it’s the Givers again. The highest productivity, the greatest sales revenue, even the best grades in medical school belong to the helpful and generous. So good guys finish first, too.”

It stands to reason: Giving promotes forward movement, enabling a person or organization to make progress toward a goal, a final product or service, or a destination, which results in greater productivity for a team. Takers and Matchers don’t deliver the same results. Of course, one could argue that Takers are very productive—but only in matters of the self. Takers, by definition, remove a resource from one area and keep it for themselves. The Takers gain, but nothing is produced. The Matcher may give or take, or do both at the same time, but you can’t predict the outcome.

So you can begin to see how Grant, with his résumé, giving tendencies and position as the youngest tenured professor at Wharton, could develop a reputation—and a pretty good one, at that.

Here’s where the funny things happen. In 2013, The New York Times magazine did a lengthy profile on Grant and his research. The story characterized him as a constant, perhaps chronic, helper of others: of students with papers, projects and recommendation letters; of corporate and government consulting clients; of total strangers with all manner of miscellany. So the story runs, and… well, let Grant tell the rest.

“I received something like 4,000 emails in the span of a few weeks from total strangers asking for things,” Grant says, laughing because he knows that his own drive to help and give set that avalanche in motion. “Saying no has become more of a problem and less of a problem at the same time. The more of the problem is that The New York Times broadcast to whoever was reading that I seem to like helping random strangers. So I’m fielding a lot more requests than I have before. That obviously made it harder. But the easier part came from, when that happened, forcing me to be clear about my priorities. I said, ‘Look, family first, students second, college third, everybody else fourth.’”

Then he laughs again. “Though my default answer is still ‘yes.’”

One of the first questions that come to mind when you read Grant’s work is, “If Givers are at the very top and bottom of the success ladder, what propels similar personalities to very different fates?” Grant says it comes down to an analysis—and awareness—of your own habits.

“Unsuccessful Givers fail to differentiate between being nice and being helpful. A lot of Givers make the mistake of thinking they have to be warm and friendly and welcoming all the time. That can be a recipe for becoming a doormat,” Grant says. “Second, a lot of Givers lose sight of their own interests. They become self-sacrificing altruists. Maybe that worked for Mother Teresa, but most of us can’t sustain that.”

We all know people like that, and it’s clear to see how those folks can end up propping up the Takers and Matchers, as well as the successful Givers. When asked about the habits of the Givers at the top, Grant offers a list:

1. Selectivity. 

“Don’t help all the people all the time with all their requests,” he says, and he freely acknowledges that this has been a problem for him in the past. “If we break down each of those categories in terms of who you help, you obviously want to be more cautious in dealing with Takers. Whereas if you’re dealing with someone who is generous or fair, it’s safer to be helpful.”

2. Good time management. 

“Successful Givers are the ones who block off windows in their schedules to get their own work done,” Grant says. “So you say, ‘Look, I’m going to dedicate time to helping other people, but I’m not going to allow that to compromise my own goals and ambitions.’ The Failure Giver drops everything whenever someone comes looking for support or assistance.”

3. Specialization. 

This is especially helpful when you have the volume of requests that Grant does. “Successful Givers become specialists in helping, as opposed to generalists. Instead of fielding any old kind of query, they’re really focused and say, ‘I’ve got one or two ways of helping others that I’m uniquely good at and I enjoy, and when I help I become energized and efficient and have an impact,’” he says. “As opposed to [those who get] distracted and exhausted by the range of things that land on their plates.”

4. Strength. 

Helping others from a place of firm footing brings you better results. “Successful Givers know about the rule on the airplane,” Grant says. “Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. Some Givers completely lose sight of their own goals and interests. I’m not saying you should be relentlessly selfish as a Giver, but be more strategic. Integrate your helping of others with your own aspirations. Like giving in ways that are aligned with your organization’s goals, as opposed to just giving indiscriminately.”

The most interesting things about Grant’s book are the anecdotes about Givers, Takers and Matchers. There is one tale, however, that didn’t make it into the book that he wishes had. It crystalizes how Givers—especially a collective of Givers—can deliver transformative productivity.

“A couple of years ago, this quantitative trader posted a ‘want’ ad for a job,” Grant says. “It said he was looking for somebody with a giving personality. Nineteen people applied for the job. So he invites them all for an interview—all for the same time. So 19 people show up at his office and they’re like, ‘What are we doing here?’ The trader says, ‘I’m looking to hire someone with a giving personality. You’re all looking for jobs, so what I’d like you all to do is help each other get jobs. I will hire the person who is best at helping everyone else get a job.’”

It makes sense—everyone knows different people and different opportunities. And everyone knows of a job that’s not a good fit for them but which might work for someone else. So they started helping each other. That’s when it got really interesting, Grant says. “There was a woman in the group who ended up helping three or four people find jobs, so the trader offered the job to her. And she turned it down! She said, ‘I just found my calling.’ She goes and becomes a recruiter. I thought that was a great example of what Givers do successfully, which is to say, ‘I’m going to bring a group of people together, and if I can turn them all into Givers, we’ll all help each other, and the whole group will be better off.’”

So as not to give all the ink to the Givers, what about the others? If you’re a motivated Giver, at some point (and perhaps even today), you’ll have to work with one or more Takers. We all know some. How can Givers ensure that something productive comes of it?

“That’s a great question,” Grant says. “If I were to rewrite the book, that would be one of the things I would spend most of my time on. There are [several] ways to work with Takers.” 

Here are his suggestions:

1. Analyze. 

“It’s worthwhile to figure out why this person operates like a Taker and how pervasive it is for them… If you can observe this person in a range of situations, what are the moments when they’re less selfish and more generous?” he asks. “Can you understand their triggers and shape the situation to bring out a different side of them?”

2. Find those triggers. 

“No one wants to be seen as a Taker,” Grant says. “So if you can make their behavior or reputation [as a Taker] less visible, they start to feel like helping you is also helping them. For example, if you can build an outward identification so [it seems] they’re committed to the team or the organization, then you blur the line between self-interest and the contribution.”

3. Try strategic misdirection. 

Or, as Grant puts it, “Sic a Taker on another Taker.” The trick here is that your Taker has to be loyal to you or the organization. “Appealing to the Taker’s self-interest is a pretty reasonable place to start,” he says.

When considering the motivations of others, as it applies to Grant’s research, you could see how some could use human tendencies in nefarious ways. For example, what happens when a Taker reads his book and decides to disguise themselves as a Giver to get ahead?

“I went back and forth on this while I was writing,” Grant says. “I had moments where I was thinking, If I teach Takers to be better fakers, is that good or bad? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s both. It’s bad in the sense that there are some Takers who will become cleverer about their strategies. They may get away with fooling some people.

“But there is also the sense that if you change their behavior, sometimes the motives are less important than the actions. If Takers start helping people to get what they want, in a way, I’ve turned them into Matchers. I’m OK with that. There is some evidence that it’s easier to change people’s behavior first and then watch their attitudes and values fall in line. You can get Takers to engage in giving, and what often happens is they get to choose who they want to help and what kind of giving they want to do. At least some of the time, they realize, Gosh, this is actually kind of meaningful. Or enjoyable. Or it changed a relationship and allowed them to form a connection instead of just having all these transactions. There is a fake-it-till-you-make-it element that can play out here.”

This article was published in May 2014 and has been updated. Photo by Cookie Studio/Shutterstock