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By Craig Dowden, Ph.D. 

Adam Grant, Ph.D. is the youngest tenured professor at the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Last year, his first book, Give and Take, was published to international acclaim and became a Wall Street Journal and New York Times best seller.

The fundamental premise of the book suggests that there are three categories of people, determined by their interaction style with others: givers, takers and matchers. As their names suggest, takers look to maximize their return while matchers look for an “even trade.” Givers are relatively rare and desire to assist others without any promise of return.

Referencing his own groundbreaking research as well as other fascinating work, Dr. Grant highlights how these relationship styles directly and profoundly impact our success. Although the good nature of some givers is exploited to their detriment, others thrive and end up at the top of the success ladder. I had the privilege of interviewing Adam about his pioneering work to identify how his findings fit within an organizational context.

Given the audience for HR Professional, I was hoping you could share how HR leaders and executives can incorporate the primary messages of Give and Take within their organizations.

Adam Grant: From my standpoint, a primary role of HR leaders is to build a culture of successful givers. That means two things. One is motivating people to give and setting norms and values around helping others. And second, it is creating a context whereby when those behaviours occur, people actually rise instead of suffer as a result.

Most people think that if you want a culture of givers, you should hire givers. But, the data shows this is not actually the most important step. Rather, you should focus on screening out takers. I am fond of putting it this way, “One bad apple can spoil a barrel, but it’s not so common that one good egg makes a dozen.”

The negative impact of a taker on a culture is often double to triple the positive impact of a giver. Also, if you allow takers into your organization, then a lot of givers will hold back, because they fear getting exploited, and rightfully so. If you can screen out takers effectively, you are left with givers and matchers. In this environment, the givers will be generous because they do not have to worry about the consequences. The beauty of matchers is that they will follow the norm. So, in the presence of givers, matchers become givers and then the whole culture of the organization shifts towards giving without having to focus on it that heavily.

Another benefit of matchers is that they will bring some of the strengths of takers to the table so that if an organization lets some takers through the cracks, matchers will be really tough on those people and hold them accountable. Also, if you have clients or suppliers who are takers, again, matchers are the ones who fight fire with fire. So, you end up getting the benefits of both giving and taking without having to deal with any takers.

How can organizations more effectively select the givers and matchers and screen out the takers?
AG: One thing to watch out for is the “kissing up, kicking down” pattern because references that come from above are typically a little more positive for takers than they ought to be since takers are good fakers when dealing with powerful people. What you want to do more of are lateral and downward references because takers tend to let their guard down a little bit when dealing with people who are lateral and below, so peers and subordinates tend to see more of the true colours of takers.

Another favourite strategy is when reviewing their career history, rather than focusing on their successes and failures, pay more attention to how they explain them. Takers are more likely to take personal credit for achievements and blame their setbacks on other people. Of course, there will be a little bit more balance in givers and matchers in sharing credit and they will also tend to acknowledge where they made a mistake, what they learned from it and what they will do differently in the future.

Outside of selection, what are some other strategies that HR executives can use to build a culture of giving?

AG: HR leaders have a huge influence on onboarding. Traditionally, socialization basically was about organizations breaking people in and teaching them about their culture, with new employees being in passive, receiving mode.

There is some new research by Dan Cable, Francesco Gino and Brad Statts showing that organizations actually get better results when instead of saying, “Let’s break you in,” they focus instead on, “Let’s figure out what strengths our new employees bring to the table that can contribute value to our culture from day one.” Their research shows this is a much more effective onboarding strategy.

This approach also gets employees in the mindset of giving right away by realizing they do not have to gain 12 years of experience before they have something to offer. The expertise and experience they are bringing to the table gives them a perspective that is distinctive and maybe allows them to bring something of benefit to the organization immediately.

There are lots of ways to do this concretely. For example, for the first two weeks an employee comes in, an organization could assign this new hire to conduct a culture audit. They can try to figure out, as an outsider, what is working and also use their prior experience to talk about certain practices that may be interesting to import to their new organization. Why not learn from other cultures before an employee becomes a fish in water and does not see some of the opportunities for improvement as clearly?

You can also think of a reverse mentoring initiative where the new employee works closely with people who have more experience than they do, and the new hire tries to highlight – because they have this fresh perspective – how things might be done differently and more effectively. I think this is all in service of getting people in the mode of thinking like givers from the start.

Socialization should be less about embedding giver values, and more about engaging people in giver behaviours where they just get into the habit, and then the values will follow.

What types of challenges might HR leaders encounter in incorporating more giving into their culture? What steps can they take to counter this possible resistance?
AG: One challenge is an organization that has a group of givers, but the takers are basically climbing up the ladder on the givers’ shoulders. In this case, you have to seriously re-think your reward system. Many organizations do a really good job handing out performance evaluations, compensation and promotion decisions based on individual achievements. It is inherently more difficult to measure, in most organizations, how much people contribute to others. If you don’t find a way to recognize and reward giving behaviour, you are basically dooming the organization to be run by takers.

A great example of a reward system, which I learned about recently, is from Corning Incorporated, the company that makes gorilla glass for the iPhone and iPad. They have a lot of scientists and engineers and the highest honour they can earn in these innovation-heavy roles is to be named a “Corning Fellow.”

Corning Fellows are given two privileges that everybody wants. One is you get a “job for life,” like university tenure. The other is you get a “lab for life.” Essentially, you get free reign for whatever projects you think are interesting and meaningful for the company, and you can work on those with all of the resources and support you need to make those happen. I cannot think of something that would be more exciting to a scientist or engineer.

The question is, “How do you become a Corning Fellow?” Of course, one of the criteria is you have to be the lead author on a patent that has driven huge value for the business. This is a way of making sure that you are a person who can be trusted to lead really great work that will lead to more innovation moving forward.

But they do not stop there. It is not enough to just have lead authorship on a patent. You also have to have a track record of supporting other people’s successful patents. One great way of doing this is to be a secondary or tertiary author on patents. The terrific thing about this is that no taker would ever do the behaviours necessary to “free ride” on other people’s patents because patents could take eight to 10 years to develop, and it requires a huge amount of work to help other people on them. There is not enough short-term return for it to make sense for a taker to game the system.

By the time a scientist or engineer has done the giving and helping necessary to be on other people’s patents, it becomes a symbol that they have actually been a giver. I think this is such a phenomenal way to reward successful givers who have been responsible for great individual achievements, but who have also gone out of their way to make other people successful.

When discussing this type of program, is this in line with breaking down reward systems more specifically (e.g., individual, team and organizational performance)?
AG: Absolutely. I think there is always a balance. I am not suggesting to get rid of individual performance evaluations or rewards and promotions. I am saying that most organizations are skewed too heavily in that direction. We need to do a better job of tracking not just your success, but how does your success affect the achievement of others?

How about having members of the team acknowledge each other for their giving?

I am an increasingly big fan of “peer bonus programs” for exactly the reason we talked about earlier; peers see a lot of giving and taking that bosses don’t. So if you follow the lead of Google, Zappos, Southwest or Jet Blue, give every employee the opportunity to provide meaningful recognition to others or even give them a small budget to dole out bonuses for giving. Again, it is hard to game the system on these things and in general, an organization will do a better job of gathering data not only about who is receiving the most recognition and bonuses, but also about the people who go out of their way to give these bonuses out, because that can be an act of giving in and of itself.

What is one of the more counterintuitive points you talk about and have found in your research while writing Give and Take?
AG: If you want a culture of giving, you need a culture of help-seeking. The logic for this is pretty simple. Most giving happens in response to a request. If everybody holds back on asking because they want to be self-reliant or they do not want to be vulnerable, then you deprive all of the givers in the organization knowledge about who could benefit from their help and how.

For HR leaders, there are two concrete steps they can take. First, they can model “help-seeking” so that people realize it is not a sign of incompetence, but it is actually encouraged and accepted.
A second step is to create better marketplaces for connecting people who do have requests with the best experts and the people who are most qualified to actually give. Our research shows that for the most part, when employees seek help, they go to the people they trust the most and feel the most comfortable with, and they basically ignore expertise as a consideration in terms of who they should ask.

An HR leader can play a big role here in pointing out that although the employee may not have as strong a relationship with someone, this individual is the person you want to go to with your request.

This really resonates with coaching and organizational development work – that there is a strong fear with vulnerability and people want to think they have the answer to every question. Am I taking it too far to link that help-seeking type of culture with humility?

AG: That is a great connection. In cultures of arrogance, people feel like they have to be, Enron-style, the smartest person in the room and any display of asking for help or seeking input on an idea is admitting that they do not have all of the answers. If people embrace greater humility and modesty, we would realize we are all human, we are all fallible, we all have incomplete knowledge and on any topic, there is more than likely somebody else that may have better insight.

Also, part of humility is recognizing that even if you are a world-leading expert, there is somebody else who may know less but who has a novel perspective that could impact the work that you are doing.

Craig Dowden, Ph.D. is managing director of SPB Organizational Psychology.

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