Givers can excel, but they can also burn out and be taken for chumps. Intelligent giving includes giving on behalf of … yourself. (More)

Give and Take, Part II: Modesty, Motivation, and Doormats

This week Morning Feature considers Adam Grant’s Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Yesterday we saw how givers build networks that expand opportunities for everyone involved. Today we discuss how to avoid the risks of giving: burnout and the doormat effect. Tomorrow 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.

“Let me finish!”

Most of us have said that, and heard it said to us, at least once. It’s also the title for the closing segment of Chris Matthews’ Hardball. The irony is unmistakeable, as Matthews is notorious for repeating questions in ever more strident tones while guests struggle to squeeze in answers. In Dr. Grant’s terms, Matthews seeks influence through dominance:

Takers are attracted to, and excel in, gaining dominance. In an effort to claim as much value as possible, they strive to be superior to others. To establish dominance, takers specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices to assert their authority, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments, and sell with conviction and pride.

Givers, Dr. Grant writes, seek influence through prestige:

The opposite of a taker’s powerful communication style is called powerless communication. Powerless communicators tend to speak less assertively, expressing plenty of doubt and relying heavily on advice from others. They talk in ways that signal vulnerability, revealing their weaknesses and making use of disclaimers, hedges, and hesitations.

With our Western culture’s emphasis on “power talk” and “power words,” you might assume dominant speakers have the advantage. “Umm, well, not quite,” Dr. Grant writes. “I think.”

Dominance is a zero-sum game. By definition, only a subset of participants can dominate a group. The rest are dominated, and they often resist and resent it. A dominator can ‘win’ a debate without changing anyone’s mind: the true measure of influence.

By contrast, prestige is an open-sum game. It is possible for each person in a group to be respected and admired by each other person, and for their mutual respect and admiration to strengthen as they interact. Dr. Grant cites research showing that people respect expertise, but most people respect it more from experts who don’t try to sound like fonts of unchallengeable certainty. Admitting your limits and exposing your struggles will often increase your prestige, and encourage others to admit their limits and struggle alongside you.

Thus, givers can change minds without needing or seeming to ‘win.’ But they may not see that happening.

“I’m not making a difference.”

When Vanderbilt graduate Conrey Callahan arrived as a Teach For America neophyte at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, she hoped to “make a difference, improving education and opportunities for kids in low-income communities.” Overbrook would provide more than enough challenge. Almost 500 of the school’s 1200 students were suspended during the 2011 school year, including almost 50 assaults and 20 weapons or drug charges. Only 54% graduate. Callahan got to school at 6:45am and was often up until 1am grading papers and preparing lesson plans. The stress began to exhaust her. “I was burned out, overwhelmed, and ready to give up,” she told Dr. Grant. “I never wanted to set foot in a school again.”

Yet her solution turned out to be not giving less, but giving more … and differently. She began volunteering as a TFA alumni mentor. She also helped found the Philadelphia chapter of Minds Matter, a non-profit group that works to help high-achieving low-income students prepare for college. After a year of preparing applications and filing legal paperwork, she was ready to start recruiting students and mentors, doubling her five hour a week volunteer schedule.

Yet Callahan’s burnout faded and her energy returned. She had been suffering from what Dr. Grant calls impact vacuum, a “giver without a cause.” As she told him in an interview:

In teaching, do I have an impact? It’s kind of dicey. I often feel like I’m not doing anything effective, that I’m wasting my time and I’m not making a difference.

With my [TFA alumni] mentoring program, there’s no doubt; I know I have a more direct impact. I know what I’ve started [with Minds Matter] is really making a difference with these kids. What I’ve seen in three months is a big change for them, and they make me realize how great kids can be.”

Dr. Grant argues that givers burn out not because they give too much, but because they don’t see their efforts making a difference in people’s lives. Intelligent givers learn to “chunk” rather than “sprinkle,” packing workplace giving into a specific period of the day and civic volunteer hours into one or two days a week. And while research shows that people who volunteer are happier and live longer, that tapers off at 100 hours per year, about two hours a week. He cites a Canadian study that found volunteering more than five hours a week, over a long period, brought diminishing returns for both the giver and for the projects on which they worked.

Intelligent givers also tend and befriend, building relationships with giver- and matcher-colleagues who support each other when someone starts to feel fatigued. Intelligent givers are not “selfless” but are instead “otherish,” taking care of others while recognizing that they too sometimes need support … so they can keep giving and making a difference for others.

“Chump change”

But givers can also be taken. Dr. Grant cites data that show givers are more likely to be victims of crime, especially crimes involving fraud. The irony is that givers are better at sincerity screening – judging if someone is trying to take advantage – when asked to do so by a friend. Alas, givers are more likely to assume others’ sincerity without question in their own relationships.

Other data show givers are less likely to negotiate for a higher salary or benefits at work, or a better deal on a major purchase at home. Carnegie Mellon economist Linda Babcock found that men who graduated from her university’s MBA program earned 7.6% more than women, although both received similar starting offers. Fully 57% of men negotiated for a better starting salary, as compared to only 7% of women, and the students who negotiated improved their salaries by an average 7.4% … almost exactly matching the gender salary gap. Yes, our culture trains and expects women to be givers.

It’s not that givers are bad at negotiating. Indeed Babcock found that women outperformed men in negotiation exercises when the women were told to negotiate on behalf of a friend. Like sincerity screening, the issue is that givers are more reluctant to employ their interpersonal skills on their own behalf.

The solution, Dr. Grant writes, is for givers to see themselves as agents of the other people who rely on them. Rather than asking “Is this person trying to take advantage of me?” – a distinctly uncomfortable question for a giver – they should ask “Is this fair to my family, colleagues, and others who depend on me?

When givers ask that question, they change from chumps to champions, using their interpersonal skills to protect themselves on behalf of others. That’s neither “selfish” nor “selfless.” It is, instead, “otherish” … and it separates intelligent giving from the strategic giving (to get something in return) practiced by takers and matchers.

Dr. Grant’s research shows that intelligent givers far outperform both takers and matchers … and live longer and happier lives in the process.

Tomorrow we’ll see how you can become a more intelligent giver, and how to help build networks and communities of giving.


Happy Friday!