The power of giving

People who think of others are more likely to have a career. With this finding, the young organizational psychologist Adam Grant causes a sensation.
Revolution in the shark tank working world! The change took place almost unnoticed, now the first evidence emerges. The sharks don’t make it to the top anymore. This is one of several findings with which a young organizational psychologist from the USA quickly became known.

Give and take: His book, which was published a few weeks ago in the English-speaking world, is called being successful for the benefit of all. It caused a sensation in the media and recognition in the professional world. Author Adam Grant, 32, educated at Harvard University, is the youngest professor at the Wharton School, a renowned business school at the University of Pennsylvania. Business Week places him among the top 40 economists under 40. For more than seven years, he has collected, bundled and evaluated all the evidence on change in the world of work. What he discovered could turn our vision of success and career upside down.

Three drawers. That’s all Grant needs to understand the behavior of all professionals. He divides them into Taker, Matcher and Giver. Scientists with similar typologies have long been investigating the effects of such behavior on careers. Especially the donor seems to be in great danger of being exploited – and of falling by the wayside in the hierarchy. And indeed, studies show that they can be used in all occupational fields: At the bottom of the career ladder are predominantly givers. In a broad midfield, the taker and the comparator are relatively evenly distributed. The top, on the other hand, is again dominated by givers.

It is the one who predominantly thinks of others who is most likely to rise. How is that possible?

In 1995, computer science student Adam Rifkin, who runs a Green Day website, gets an email from a Graham Spencer, also a student, asking him to link some other punk rock bands on the website. If Rifkin were a comparator, he wouldn’t have done the work, after all, the favor won’t do him any good at first, he doesn’t even know Spencer; as a taker, he would have ignored the request. But Rifkin, a giver, publishes the proposed links on his page. Five years later, Spencer has become a millionaire with an Internet company, Rifkin sends him an e-mail. The former computer science student wants to start a business and needs an investor. Spencer puts Rifkin in touch with an acquaintance who makes the money available.

This fact Grant describes may look like a happy coincidence. Studies show, however, that this is a constant occurrence among donors. They always try to help, even if there is no immediate benefit for them. Over time, this means that they have a large network of people who feel connected to them. Many of these people have different interests, backgrounds and professions and thus grant access to different resources and perspectives. Most of the connections are rather loose, but “while close contacts are binding, loose contacts build bridges,” Adam Grant writes. He refers to a study by sociologist Mark Granovetter, who asked professionals how they found out about their job: 17 percent through good acquaintances, 28 percent through loose contacts.

According to Grant, the technical possibilities that make it easier to set up and maintain networks are the main reasons why donors are becoming more successful today. Networks are not only becoming more branched, but also more transparent. Through Internet sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, “word also spreads faster about who is more likely to give and who is more likely to take,” says Nicki Marquardt, Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences. The people taking them can “wear out” their contacts less often without others noticing.

But what good is a good reputation if you can’t extend your elbows at the right moment? Although Grant has proven his theses scientifically, he appreciates those who give so much that he runs the risk of overestimating them. But Grant also admits: “Whoever wants to do justice to everyone before he can profit from gratitude may soon be at the end of his rope.

Here lies the difference between successful donors and those who remain on the lower rungs of the career ladder: Givers who reach top positions give less or nothing if they can no longer manage their own tasks. To protect themselves, they temporarily become the balanced or even the take-away. Grant describes this diplomatically: “Self-interest and external interest are not opposites, but two completely independent factors”. The secret of successful donors lies in their combination: they pursue both the interests of others and their own interests.

In addition to her way of networking, Grant attributes three further success factors to the donors, which are largely based on her empathy. Firstly, cooperation with donors is easier than with others. Givers put themselves in the position of their counterparts because their well-being is important to them. They think of everyone, which makes dealing with and doing business with them pleasant.

According to Grant, the second success factor lies in the way givers negotiate. While the givers are particularly self-confident and try to push through as many of their interests as possible, the givers also address their own problem areas from the outset. They want a result that satisfies everyone. At first glance, this weakens their negotiating position, but it increases their reputation. Even during the negotiation, the other person gets respect: someone is honest with me. Studies have shown that givers achieve similarly good results in negotiations as comparators and takers. And their business partners remain with them for a longer period of time.

Almost all the results Grant compiles in his book are already known to psychologists. Even the division into Giver, Taker and Matcher is not revolutionary. “Giving or taking, cooperation or dominance, the various concepts have basically been tested since the Stone Age, a very old topic of humanity,” says Nicki Marquardt, professor of psychology.

Grant’s new achievement is to integrate and merge the many individual results into a single, catchy new concept – one that not only predicts reality, but actually describes it. While German companies have so far made little effort to identify and promote donors, American companies have long recognized their value. “In the USA, donor attitudes are already encouraged during school and university,” says Oliver Sträter, a work and organizational psychologist at the University of Kassel. Companies are now also helping them climb the ladder. Because for the guidance giving seems to be particularly suitable.

An experiment conducted by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal in 1966 showed this. At that time, Rosenthal explained to teachers which 20 percent of their students were particularly gifted according to tests. One year later the intelligence quotient of the gifted had risen by twelve points, for all others by only eight. Even two years later, the selected students were better than the others. But this had nothing to do with extraordinary talent: The pupils were chosen at random, as Rosenthal later announced. The result of his experiment was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The teachers believed that some students were better than others – and had made them better.

What Rosenthal has, so to speak, implanted in his teachers through clever deception, givers already bring with them. That, at least, is the third success factor that Grant has identified with them. “Givers do not wait for signs of potential. They trust the abilities of others from the outset. Givers tend to see potential in everyone,” Grant writes. So it is promoted by that faith alone. The recipients, on the other hand, have little confidence in others by their very nature; after all, everyone fights for themselves in their idea of the world of work. Comparative people are more open and willing to promote the potential of their employees. But they first want to make sure that their support pays off – and the potential is not always immediately apparent.

However, what makes those who give hope are based on a sensitive balance. What if one giver, in his boundless optimism and belief in the other, holds on too long to an employee, even though he is completely overtaxed and slows down the processes? If one harms one’s own company in a negotiation that can never be satisfactory for everyone out of restraint? There are traps lurking in the supposedly advantageous behaviour of the donors. In order to avoid them, Giver needs the ability to ask for help in addition to the self-interest mentioned above. Then they are successful.

To cheer the givers up to purely selfless people would therefore be a transfiguration. “Even the people who give a lot in their profession without consideration do not act without ulterior motives,” confirms Sonja Sackmann, industrial and organizational psychologist at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich. Often the giver grants only one advance at confidence – which must prove itself and then for a further business relation is used.

That seems to be working: At the end of the day, he is at the top of the list with above-average frequency.

According to Grant, if you want to become a giver yourself, you should pay attention to your motives: “If you only become a giver in order to achieve your own goals, it probably won’t work.”

DIE ZEIT  – online Nº 29/2013 – von Christian Heinrich 

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