What’s the Surest Route to Success? Giving, Says Adam Grant

Adam Grant knows a thing or two about success.

He’s a Wharton Business School professor, organizational psychologist, and author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” which posits that the most successful people are givers, not takers or matchers. His theories have intriguing implications for parents, schools, small businesses and communities, as well as for those climbing a corporate ladder.

In anticipation of his Family Action Network (FAN) appearance on January 9, Grant provided insight on the following topics:

Parenting

Susan B. Noyes: What strategies do you recommend for parents to use with children and teens to teach them to be givers who succeed in school, at work and in life?

Adam Grant: For starters, I would look for acts of giving and helping from our children, and change how we praise them. Research suggests that it’s powerful to shift from verbs to nouns; instead of saying ‘That was such a helpful thing to do,” it’s better to say “You are such a helpful person,” which leads children to internalize helping as part of their identities. Also, role modeling is extremely important; children and teens are more likely to give when their friends and family members give.Family-giving activities, such as volunteering together, are an excellent step in this direction.

Schools


New Trier High School, where you will be speaking, is widely considered one of the best public schools in the country. It takes seriously its mission to “commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion and lives to the service of humanity.” Does the school’s emphasis on compassion for and service to others contribute to the school’s success?  

Without studying the school in depth, it’s difficult to draw inferences about what makes New Trier High School so successful. My research does show, though, that when people focus their energy and attention on helping others, they experience a greater sense of purpose and feel more valued, which motivates them to work harder, longer, smarter and more productively.

In one study of teachers, Beth Campbell and I found that job stress only led to burnout when they didn’t feel that their work made a difference in the lives of others. A sense of effective service buffered against burnout, enabling teachers to weather the storm of challenging jobs. With this in mind, I would like to see more educational institutions place a strong emphasis on service.

In terms of developing successful givers, our research suggests that it’s valuable for students to reflect on their past experiences of helping others to identify the form of giving that’s most meaningful to them. For some students, it may be sharing a particular kind of knowledge; for others, it may be mentoring, volunteering for a chosen cause, or making introductions to bring people together. Once students find a giving role that’s intrinsically motivating, it often becomes a natural course of action.

Business

The book “Firms of Endearment,” published by Sisodia, Sheth and Wolfe in 2007, also advocates that success flows from business models that include a strong giving component. Does this mean that positive psychology values should be more closely aligned with traditional business practices? 

I would describe my philosophy and the “Firms of Endearment” view in terms of a Venn diagram. The overlap lies in a shared focus on core values that transcend individual self-interest and actions in organizations that contribute to the lives of others. The key difference is that in “Give and Take,” my focus is on our interactions with others at work. Do we aim to get more than we give (takers), trade evenly (matchers), or help others with no strings attached (givers)?

There is reason to believe that when groups of leaders and employers adopt a giving style, the culture can become aligned with the “Firms of Endearment” approach, and extensive research shows that the payoff includes greater profits, higher customer satisfaction and employee retention, and lower operating costs.

I do believe that there is growing recognition in the business world that profit and purpose can go hand in hand, and that companies are better off when they take actions that benefit customers, employees, and communities. Consistent with this trend, as I noted in a blog post earlier in the fall, at Wharton, interest in social impact has increased dramatically in recent years.

Small/Local Businesses

Local businesses in our community and across the country work harder than ever to stay in business. They often are hit with several requests to donate to nonprofits. What recommendations do you have for them?

My advice would be to give insofar as it doesn’t compromise their ability to pursue their goals and deliver on their commitments to their key stakeholders. To borrow an analogy from airlines, they need to secure their oxygen masks before coming to the assistance of others. I would also suggest giving where they can have a unique impact. This might mean volunteering to provide strategic advice or make connections, rather than giving money.

Affluent Communities

Experts frequently claim that wealthier communities are less giving than poorer ones. If the most successful individuals are givers, why aren’t the wealthiest communities also the most generous? 

I’ve been working on redefining giving; it’s not about philanthropy, but about whether you strive to help others without expecting anything in return. Givers, by my definition, are more focused on succeeding in ways that benefit others than on accumulating wealth per se.

There are many paths to wealth, and recent research shows that when people gain wealth, they tend to become more distant from those in need, which makes it harder to empathize. We can disrupt this pattern through more intergroup contact. We now have half a century of research demonstrating that when people have direct exposure to those in need, they cross the empathy chasm and become more motivated to help them.

Make It Better is proud to be the media sponsor of FAN’s presentation of Adam Grant. Find more information about Grant and his book here.