Why Being a 'Giver' Is a Smart Career Move
The author of 'Give and Take' says helping others can pay off for you — if you know how to do it right
We all know that it is more blessed to give than to receive, a particularly apt rule during the holiday season. But what you may not know is that people who are givers in their working lives — through mentoring, making introductions and sharing their expertise — land at the top of the success ladder.
That’s the conclusion drawn by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School management professor Adam Grant, author of the fascinating and timely new book, Give and Take, based on his research.
When I interviewed Grant, however, I learned that there are successful givers (they’re the ones who get promotions, new jobs and raises as a result of their generosity) and failed givers (the ones who wind up as patsies). In addition, Grant told me, people in their 50s and 60s have a leg up on younger workers — if they know how to use their age and experience to their advantage.
Highlights from our conversation:
Next Avenue: What led you to connect giving and success?
Grant: Year after year, students would come into my office for career advice and I’d ask them what their professional goals were and they’d often say, "I really want to make a difference and help others, so I’ll maximize my wealth over the next 35 years and start giving back." Meantime, doing research, I was struck by the fact that so many successful people started out giving long before they achieved major success. I thought that given the conversation I was having with my students, this seemed a counterintuitive but incredibly important message to deliver.
What’s the payoff for being a giver?
When you look at the data, every time you sincerely try to help someone else without strings attached, you enhance the probability that somebody else at some point is going to do something for you.
Isn’t it hard to be a giver?
A lot of people make the mistake thinking that if you want to be a giver, you need to become Mother Teresa or Gandhi. That doesn’t turn out to be sustainable for most mere mortals.
(MORE: Unconventional Career Advice You Need to Hear)
So how should people do it?
I love the advice that Adam Rifkin [a Silicon Valley software whiz dubbed “best networker” by Fortune magazine] gives in my book: You should try to do more five-minute favors every week.
What’s a five-minute favor?
It’s a way of adding high value to other people’s lives at a low personal cost. Some of the most common five-minute favors are introductions between two people who could benefit from knowing each other. Another one is going out of your way to recognize somebody’s work by writing a note to their boss.
How can doing these little favors help your career?
The first thing is that it becomes a tremendous source of meaning and happiness. The sad reality of work is that many of us feel we don’t work in jobs where we can make a difference every day. If you don’t feel like your core products or services are changing peoples’ lives, doing more of these five-minute favors turns out to be a terrific substitute.
The second thing is that when you do a lot of these five-minute favors, they start to accumulate and you build a reputation. As you do more of these favors, people start to hear about what a helpful person you are and you end up connecting with people who can then become a source of creative ideas and maybe even offer you jobs.
What’s the most effective way to do these favors?
Think of doing them as a specialist, not a generalist.
Instead of trying to help all people with all requests, say to yourself, "There are one or two meaningful ways that I can give and I’m good at, so I’m going to focus on those."
If you become an expert in a particular type of knowledge or a certain skillset, you can really build out your expertise quickly and people will start to know you as the go-to person.
Adam Rifkin, for example, is the introductions guy. Over time, he’s come to be known as someone who is very generous with his network. That means when people go to him for help, they don’t ask him to read their business plans as much as they used to.
In your book, you talk about failed givers and successful givers. What’s the difference?
Failed givers are the people who are basically altruistic in their giving; they’re constantly making personal sacrifices to benefit others and try to help all the people all the time. That is a recipe for burnout and an invitation to takers: "I am here to be used as much as you want."
Successful givers are much more thoughtful. They say to themselves, "I’ll help as often as I can without any quid pro quo, but I’m going to do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t compromise my own goals and ambitions."
And they block out time. Don’t spread your help across lots of hours every day and week. Rather, dedicate a couple of windows when you really want to be focused on helping others.
You also say that some givers fail because they won’t ask for help. What do you mean?
They think, "If I ask for something from others, I’m a taker." But actually, a taker is someone who uses someone else. A receiver is someone who says I’m going to benefit from someone else’s help, but I’m willing to do that to pay it forward.
If you are a giver and never ask for help, you’re dooming yourself to becoming a self-sacrificing giver and you’re depriving the people around you of the chance to give, which they may be motivated to do.
You have to be willing to ask for help when you’re stuck or you need a lead.
(MORE: The Key to a Successful Career Shift: Asking for Help)
Who should you go to for help with a work or career issue?
Most of us go to our strong ties, the people we really know and trust. But that turns out to be the absolutely worst place to go, because they know a lot of the same people and stuff you do.
Weak ties — people we know as acquaintances who travel in different circles — can open up access to information. The problem is it’s hard to reach out to these people. If you need a job or confidential advice for an innovation you’re trying to pursue, can you go to a perfect stranger? Not so easily.
But there’s a third kind of tie that gives you the best of both worlds. They have the information of a weak tie, but the familiarity and trust of a strong tie. They’re your dormant ties: the people that you used to know but lost touch with. In the years since you spoke to them, they’ve met different people and learned different things. And since you have a shared history, it’s a lot easier to reach out to them than to weak ties. You can look that person up and say, "Hey, we haven’t spoken in a while and I miss our interactions. I’d love to reconnect."
How do people in their 50s and 60s have an advantage over younger people when it comes to using dormant ties?
Dormant ties become more valuable every year. You have more of them as you get older because you’ve met more people and they’ve had more time to learn interesting things. They have great ideas and connections to share with you.
How does mentoring younger people at work help your career?
Mentoring is one of the most powerful ways people can become givers. That’s especially true for people in their 50s and 60s. What you end up building is a network of mentors. When the next cohort arrives, you can ask the people you mentored to pay it forward and mentor the new group.
How can people be more effective in the way they network?
The best thing you can do is to use your network in the service of helping other people make connections. At least once a month, try to introduce two people who don’t know each other but you think could really help each other out.
What if you’re asked to help someone you don’t really know?
If you make introductions more proactively, you can get out of this trap. When you initiate the introduction, you can maximize the odds that the two people will hit it off and help each other.
Also, there’s no harm in being transparent: When someone makes an ask and you don’t really know them, say to the person they want to meet, "Look, I’ve only interacted with this person for 35 minutes. I don’t have a lot of data or history about them, but based on my initial read, I thought this was someone you might want to look at, although you’ll want to do your own analysis."
How can you be a giver and still negotiate a good raise for yourself?
Givers are frequently reluctant to lobby for their own interests at the bargaining table. They empathize with the other side and more or less give away the farm. But if you can shift your frame of reference and think about the people you’re negotiating on behalf of, you can turn your disadvantage to an advantage.
Think of yourself as an advocate for somebody you care about. It could be that you’re negotiating on behalf of your family because your salary is very important to support them.
You recommend setting up something called a Reciprocity Ring. What’s that and how do you do it?
It’s one of my favorite ways to organize giving.
The idea is that you gather people in a group and have everyone make a request for something they want or need but cannot get on their own. You could do this with family members getting together at the holidays or as part of a team-building event at work or at a client appreciation event.
What happens is that everybody in the Reciprocity Ring is challenged to use their knowledge and network to fulfill the requests.
I make a request, you help me, somebody else helps you and it becomes this great pay-it-forward mentality. About 80 percent of the requests end up getting fulfilled by somebody in the group.
People walk away with the realization that it’s a lot easier to ask for help when everyone’s doing it.