Strategic Generosity and The Long Game: More Power to You

There are three types of people in this world. Which one are you?

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I am a big fan of Adam Grant, a professor in Organisational Psychology 1. Adam lends a zest for life and learning to his approachable lessons in psychology. Applying psychology to business is Adam’s lens. He applies this lens through compelling and enjoyable books and podcasts. As a baby psychologist, I take note of how Adam integrates theory and research in many companies. Rather than heavily academic work that you have to be in the right mood to consume, Adam is a master of storytelling — clearly his forte 2.

One of the best lessons that I have learned from Adam is the concept of givers, takers and matchers. Being an organisational change manager, I am in the “people business”. How do I give the best of my efforts and organisational change knowledge without giving too much and risking burnout 3,4? This raises the question about givers, takers and matchers. Adam’s book Give and take: Why helping others drives our success speaks to these concepts 5.

  • Takers have a distinctive signature. They believe the world is a competitive dog eat dog place and often value success and material possessions. Takers may score high in tests of Machiavellianism and tend to be self-focussed 6;
  • Matchers believe in “tit for tat” and reciprocity;
  • Givers focus on others and often provide to others more than they receive in return. Givers are usually a rare breed in workplaces and may be seen as weak or pushovers.

Adams book shows research supporting this notion where givers might earn 14% less money and may even bear twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes 5. One of the outtakes from this book is that givers are often at the bottom of the success pile when comparing success in many endeavours.

So why on earth would anyone be a giver? Your values correspond towards selflessness. Yet after reading the article so far, do you feel compelled to hide your values and selfless approach to life? In the big bad world of business, especially high-pressure projects, why on earth would any project professional want to be (or be seen) as a giver?

Generosity: Disarming yet enabling?

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Over time the givers became far more successful. Especially those who approached giving with one clear difference. They approached their giving strategically. In repeated studies of various professions, one startling insight is clear. The relationship between giving and success displays as a curve over time.

Both smart and not-so-smart givers are at the bottom of the “success heap” for some time, early in their careers. In a study of medical students, those seen as givers experienced slowly compounding success well after graduation. They helped their fellow students become more successful, often to their detriment. Yet after graduation, givers had forged connections to new people and ideas. These connections helped compound their success. Success in this instance was in the form of networks for better ideas and job opportunities.

Givers can also develop their own way of influencing. Rather than aggressive, zero-sum thinking there are gentler approaches to accruing power. A giver’s philosophy aligns with this gentler way. Givers may even be superior to takers or matchers over time in presenting, selling, persuading and negotiating. Why? Givers may be more inclined to ask questions instead of offering answers. They may get people onside by being tentative rather than bold. They show vulnerability and a good sense of humour about themselves.

Displaying weakness and self-deprecation rather than strength may paradoxically bring you power 7,8! Givers may also seek advice rather than imposing their views. How do you feel when someone asks your opinion? Especially when your audience’s question is well-crafted. Have they deduced a sense of pride in you about the topic? Clever advice-seeking can be pretty intoxicating for other people. Done well this is a powerful influence tactic.

A giver’s vulnerability means that they don’t have to have all the answers. They may use Socratic questioning techniques to understand another person’s perspective 9. Everyone fails or makes mistakes from time to time. Because givers don’t try and cover this up, they may actually endear themselves to others — a phenomenon known as the pratfall effect 7,8.

It is worth discerning between successful and not so successful givers. Successful givers focus on others yet keep their sense of balance. Adam Grant calls this perspective “otherish”. This perspective means that successful givers benefit others and have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests. To me, this sounds like a win-win proposition.

One difference between these two types of givers focuses on energy. Unsuccessful givers concentrate on a sense of duty and obligation and give even when their energy is low. This depletes their energy further and may lead to burnout 10,11. As a change manager, I am in the business of providing support, lending a sympathetic ear, and doing what I need to to help shepherd people through often difficult organisational change. Yet if I don’t focus on my own well-being, I am at risk for poor mental and physical health. Been there, done that. So this sense of balance or as Grant puts it — equilibrium- means that I can serve employees affected by a change yet still retained some longevity in my change management career.

Short-term tactics for givers

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What practical steps can you take to move from being a likely unsuccessful giver to a more successful one? if you tend to be on the taker side of things or even a matcher, what can help you shift the dial towards being a successful giver?

  • Impact. School teachers selflessly give to their students. In a study of teachers, those who report a sense of lasting impact in their giving are resilient to stress and exhaustion.
  • Chunking. Grant’s study of teachers found another giving tactic. Successful givers scheduled specific times to give. They “chunked” or “timeboxed” their giving. Teachers may have felt compelled to mentor students after school. Yet tactical givers planned mentoring activities at another time. This time was when they felt recharged and it was convenient for the giver. Unsuccessful givers sprinkled their giving throughout their days and reacted to requests on the spot.
  • Values. Which is more energising? Giving when you find enjoyment and meaning in your giving? Or giving under a sense of justice and obligation? Give only in a way that is energising and thus sustainable.
  • Observation. As givers focus on others behaviours and are more attuned to their thoughts and feelings, they have an advantage over takers and matchers. Tactical givers screen others to see if they are takers. They pick up particular clues about others, such as when a person describes success, did they use terms like I and me or us and we?
  • Discern between sympathy and empathy. In my experience, I have found manipulative people who take are brilliant at engendering a sense of pity in others. They may come across as someone who doesn’t have much luck or has many examples of where others have done them wrong. They may try to confide in me and have an incredible amount of gossip to share. To me, these are red flags. If my sympathy button is pressed, I know to tread carefully. Empathy means that you can keep your balance and not get swayed by someone’s sob story like you would with sympathy. Yet even with empathy, use it to quickly walk in another person’s shoes but not get too caught up in their world. Detachment is key.

Negotiation studies support the idea of empathy selectively 5. Empathy should be used for quick and accurate perspective-taking. Yet focusing on others’ emotions and feelings may lead us to give away too much in a negotiation.

Bridging the short and long-term as a smart giver

Needless to say, it takes a while to get to know someone. As those who seek your advice and support may have provided a positive first impression, keep observing.

Takers who come across as agreeable are a drain on your energy. They may give an initial brilliant impression but will take advantage of you. Your inability to screen out agreeable takers is one of the reasons that you won’t become a successful giver. Agreeable takers tend to bleed you dry then leave you depleted (and often resentful).

  • Look at whether someone is self-focused or other-focused. Yes, a person may come across as sincere and even charismatic. Don’t jump to help too much just yet- look at the person over the longer term. Whether a person is friendly or unfriendly is separate from whether they are focused on themselves or others. It could be that the disagreeable person who rubs you up the wrong way truly has a heart of gold and is someone that you want in your longer-term network.
  • Ignore your assumptions about personality. Agreeable people may seem cooperative, friendly and welcoming. Disagreeable people tend to be critical, tough and more sceptical and challenging. We may tend to want to help agreeable people and perhaps find unfriendly people’s armour a little harsh and prickly. But we’re missing out if we go with our initial impressions.

Playing the longer game: Crafting your giving strategy

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  • Trust but verify. Aim to be open-minded in helping other people but realise that peoples words are nowhere near as powerful as their behaviours. If their behaviour or words suggest that they may be takers, is it time to start to drop off over time from this relationship? If dealing with a taker is almost inevitable, can you become a matcher in your exchange with these takers?
  • Adopt a character — play a role. You may feel passive or unassertive when negotiating or screening others. You may be timid about this if you are only considering your interests. Yet if you adopt a different stance, will this help you become more assertive in your giving dynamic? For example, if you play the role of representing your family’s interests? Or the interests of your organisation? Will playing this new role bolster your assertiveness and shrewdness in screening others for your giving?
  • Consider the paradoxical influence of powerless communication. Givers adopt a different habit around communication to takers. Many of us in business are conditioned to speaking powerfully and assertively. Or our personalities help us to end up in organisations which value the “appearance of power”. Yet givers value listening over talking. They tentatively suggest advice over self-promotion. They seek to understand rather than assert a position.
  • Multiply your giving productivity. In Grant’s book, he speaks about Jason Geller, a partner at Deloitte and a clever exponent of strategic giving. Geller found a way to expand the amount of giving that he could achieve without increasing the demands on his time. He engaged others in sharing the workload and created opportunities for those people to become givers.

People underestimate what they can accomplish in ten years.

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One of the biggest takeaways from Adam Grant’s book was that strategic giving is rocky and filled with disappointments. Yet, with the examples in his book, I could see that strategic giving is like compound interest. The benefits of your giving grow over time. You do need to manage your energy and the tactics you use in screening people and giving. Yet can you adopt some or all of the short, medium and long-term factors for strategic giving? Strategic giving can be an energising factor in your career. In time your giving can give back. The best strategic givers in most industries enjoy hidden wealth. For instance, better job networks and unseen connections to brilliant ideas and resources.

As with anything worthwhile rewards go to those who are observant and play for the long game. Delayed gratification is vital; why do so many of us only look for short-term gains?

In short, our ability to prosper depends on our comfort with an approach to working with others that becomes natural over time. Many successful givers may start from a default of trusting yet verifying. They are careful to scan their environments to check for potential takers. Your empathy is to take someone’s perspective without attaching too much to others emotions or plights. You can adapt between giver and matcher depending on who you are dealing with.

A giver may define success quite differently from a matcher or a giver. Givers might characterise success as their achievements that also have a positive impact on others. They succeed without cutting others down and find a way to expand the pie for their benefit and others.

Which one are you? A giver, taker or matcher? Adam Grant has a 15-minute quiz with 15 questions on his website.

Our book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out our online course on Change Management.

References

1. Adam Grant — Books, Podcast, TED Talks, Newsletter, Articles. https://www.adamgrant.net/. Accessed August 21, 2021.

2. Grant A. The surprising habits of original thinkers. TED.com. https://www.ted.com/talks/adam_grant_the_surprising_habits_of_original_thinkers/transcript?utm_content=2020-12-19&utm_source=linkedin.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=social. Published 2016. Accessed January 4, 2021.

3. Maslach C, Jackson SE. Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual. 2nd ed. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press; 1981.

4. Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People. https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people. Accessed November 25, 2020.

5. Grant A. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Reprint. Penguin Books; 2014.

6. Machiavellianism Scale. https://www.machiavellianismscale.com/. Accessed August 21, 2021.

7. Aronson E, Willerman B, Floyd J. The effect of a pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychon Sci. 1966;4(6):227–228. doi:10.3758/BF03342263

8. Teachers And The Pratfall Effect — John Dabell. https://johndabell.com/2021/08/18/teachers-and-the-pratfall-effect/. Accessed August 21, 2021.

9. Sutton J. Socratic Questioning in Psychology: Examples and Techniques. Positive Psychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/socratic-questioning/. Published 2020. Accessed November 29, 2020.

10. Adams RE, Boscarino JA, Figley CR. Compassion fatigue and psychological distress among social workers: a validation study. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2006;76(1):103–108. doi:10.1037/0002–9432.76.1.103

11. Jenaro C, Flores N, Arias B. Burnout and Coping in Human Service Practitioners. Prof Psychol ‐ Res Pract. 2007;38(1):80–87.

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Organisational change, behavioural design and coaching psychology insights — practical and research informed. Clever ways to put a dent in the world.

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Allan Owens

Senior organisational change manager. Provisional Psychologist. Author of The Change Manager’s Companion. www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au