Pronoia is the delusional belief that other people are plotting to make your life better. But for some people, that’s not a delusion. (More)

Give and Take, Part I: They’re Out to Help Me

This week Morning Feature considers Adam Grant’s Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Today we see how givers build networks that expand opportunities for everyone involved. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to avoid the risks of giving: burnout and the doormat effect. Saturday we’ll conclude with how to change community attitudes and our own lives.

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton. He earned his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, and his B.A. from Harvard University. He has been recognized as Wharton’s single-highest-rated teacher, one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors, and one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40. Previously, he was an advertising director at Let’s Go Publications, an All-American springboard diver, and a professional magician.

“Good guys finish last?”

Dr. Grant describes three kinds of people, classified by what organizational psychologists call reciprocity styles. These styles are based on how we interact with others:

  • Takers like to get more than they give, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place and to succeed they must be recognized as being better than others.
  • Matchers try to preserve an equal balance of giving and taking. They operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they expect something in return, then or in the future.
  • Givers prefer to give more than they get, sharing their time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with others who might benefit, without expecting reciprocal favors.

In cost-benefit terms, both takers and matchers weigh the costs to themselves against the benefits to themselves. Givers weigh the costs to themselves against the benefits to others. If a favor will benefit the recipient as much as or more than it will cost the giver, a giver is inclined to do it.

These styles are not set in stone. Research shows that most of us act like givers in our closest relationships, for example. As we’ll see Saturday, cultures can also nudge people toward acting like takers, or like givers. But most people do have a primary reciprocity style.

And yes, research from a wide variety of occupations – from engineering to medicine to sales – shows that givers do sink to the bottom, making others better off but sacrificing their own success. On average, givers make 14% less than takers, are twice as likely to be victims of crime, and are judged 22% less powerful and dominant. Good guys do finish last.

But they also finish first. Those same studies – from engineering to medicine to sales – also find givers at the top in performance, success, and satisfaction. Takers and matchers tend to cluster in the middle of the ladder … with givers dominating both the bottom and the top.

“Kissing up, kicking down”

These reciprocity styles are not about charity. Enron CEO Ken Lay gave millions to charity, yet Dr. Grant describes Lay as a taker: giving to those who could help him and taking from everyone else, a duality captured in the Dutch phrase “kissing up, kicking down.”

While kissing up, takers can be convincing fakers, charming and generous to those they believe can help them. But they pay a long-term price, as Dr. Grant writes:

As takers gain power, they pay less attention to how they’re perceived by those below and next to them; they feel entitled to pursue self-serving goals and claim as much value as they can. Over time, treating peers and subordinates poorly jeopardizes their relationships and reputations. After all, most people are matchers: their core values emphasize fairness, equality, and reciprocity. When takers violate these principles, matchers in their networks believe in an eye for an eye, so they want to see justice served.

Punishing takers, Dr. Grant says, is not about spite or revenge. It’s about justice. He cites research by Daniel Kahneman showing that matchers will punish takers for acting unfairly toward other people, and matchers will do so even at cost to themselves. Simply, reputations do matter.

“I Find Karma”

Wired writer Jules Marshall described pronoia as “the sneaking feeling one has that others are conspiring behind your back to help you.” And for givers that may not be a delusion.

In 2011, Fortune magazine commissioned a study to find the nation’s best networker: the person with the most connections to influential people. The winner was financier and entrepreneur Adam Rifkin, who built his network based on trust, respect, and generosity. Rifkin is a giver who coined the guideline of the “five-minute favor” – which he states as “You should be willing to do something that will take you five minutes or less for anybody.”

These “five minute favors” include answering questions and offering advice, even for competitors, or calling or writing an email to introduce someone to a trusted source. Rifkin doesn’t expect reciprocal favors. Rather, he thinks anyone – even a competitor – is worth five minutes of his time if he can help them succeed.

Rifkin also encourages those he helps to help others, building networks that expand opportunity for people he may never meet, what Dr. Grant calls “the ripple effect.” His reputation also helps when he turns to dormant contacts, people we knew years ago but with whom we’ve lost touch. Rifkin’s dormant contacts remember him fondly, and are happy to help when he calls or writes with an introduction for someone.

That may seem like a good way to waste a lot of hours on people who will suck you dry, and tomorrow we’ll discuss that risk. But just as a bad reputation can hurt you, a good reputation can help you, as Dr. Grant writes:

That is exactly what has happened to Adam Rifkin with his five-minute favors. In the days before social media, Rifkin might have toiled in anonymity. Thanks to the connected world, his reputation as a giver has traveled faster than the speed of sound. “It takes him no time to raise funding for his startups,” [entrepreneur Raymond] Rouf says with a trace of astonishment. “He has such a great reputation: people know he’s a good guy. That’s a dividend that gets paid because of who he is.”

One of Rifkin’s lifelong hobbies is rearranging the letters of his name to form different words. He finally settled on one he likes: “I Find Karma.”

“Expertise is portable?”

The modern world is often described as the information economy, with creative professions trading on knowledge and experience. Not surprisingly, corporate recruiters are on the lookout for top performers:

As investment research executive Fred Fraenkel explains, “Analysts are one of the most mobile Wall Street professions because their expertise is portable. I mean, you’ve got it when you’re here and you’ve got it when you’re there. The client base doesn’t change. You need your Rolodex and your files, and you’re in business.”

Yet research shows that assumption is not quite true. Dr. Grant describes a study where Boris Groysberg studied more than a thousand financial analysts over a nine-year period at 78 firms. The conclusion was surprising:

On average, firms lost about $24 million by hiring star analysts. Contrary to the beliefs of Fraenkel and other industry insiders, Groysberg and his colleagues conclude that “hiring stars is advantageous neither to stars themselves, in terms of their performance, nor to hiring companies in terms of their market value.”

But that’s on average. One group of stars did succeed, and Groysberg’s research matched a study of cardiac surgeons who change hospitals. Stars who succeeded after a move, far more often than not, had brought colleagues with them.

Expertise, it turns out, is a team phenomenon. And not surprisingly, givers found it much easier to build loyal teams with members willing to share the risk of a move.

Dr. Grant’s research flies in the face of conventional wisdom and our hyper-individualistic culture. Generosity and kindness are not sucker’s games. Indeed givers are the ones who truly add value at their jobs and in our society … if they give intelligently. Tomorrow we’ll discuss what that means, and the risks of being “selfless” rather than “otherish.”

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Happy Thursday!