Career Smarts: How to be a Strategic Giver

Most jobs involve some concessions and compromises, giving discretionary help or offering support. We look at recent research to discover what type of person is likely to achieve long-term success

Most jobs involve a fair amount of give and take and many people work on this basis, knowing that a few concessions or compromises on their part are necessary in order to get the job done. Of course, by its very nature, give and take also means there should also be some understanding and support flowing your way. After all, what goes around comes around, right? You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

Givers, Takers, and Matchers

But not everyone works this way. Some people are naturally giving, willing to help others with no strings attached and without keeping score, while others are more identifiably 'takers' in their professional life, always calculating 'what's in it for me?' before they go out of their way to help others. Maybe you are neither of these extremes? Perhaps you are intuitively a 'matcher', a little cautious about the concessions you make and the help you give, but you do it on the basis that favours given will be repaid, and that a little reciprocity will go a long way in ensuring your long-term success.

Dr Adam Grant, a behavioural psychologist and business professor at Wharton University, is a specialist in this area. He has done extensive research into the subject looking at groups as diverse as engineers, medical students and salespeople to see which of these styles is most likely to lead to long-term success. And his conclusion? It's the 'givers' who are the most likely winners. He noted, for example, that the engineers classed as 'givers' got the best performance reviews; that the medical student 'givers' got far better grades; and that the 'givers' among the salespeople secured 50% more revenue than their less generous colleagues.

Inwardly-focused Behaviour

Rather satisfyingly, Dr Grant's work suggests that being a 'taker' isn't a sound long-term career move either. Though a 'taker' may progress in the short to medium term, eventually their behaviour and/or reputation will catch up with them, and their career will likely stall. Their inwardly-focused behaviour will mean they are less able to inspire or lead others, and the failure to 'pay it forward' in helping others or contributing to the collective good will eventually mean their 'luck' runs out. Want to spot a taker on the make? One indicator is a tendency to only 'kiss up' to seniors and only 'kick down' to those being managed?

Leading or Lagging the Pack

But we all know the happy ending that giving is good and that all the nice guys and gals who give freely will always win doesn't actually hold true. That's because what Grant also discovered was that the least successful type of people are ultimately not the 'takers', but also the 'givers'. They either led the pack or lagged way behind. Among the engineer 'givers' were also those who made the most errors, who had the most unfinished tasks and who missed the most deadlines. It was a similar story with students and salespeople. These were, ultimately, not just 'givers', but 'over-givers' those that gave too freely and in doing so didn't focus enough on achieving their own goals and objectives.

Energised and Rewarded

In his studies, Grant asked participants to keep diaries at work and note down when, why and who they helped. He observed that what differentiates the successful givers from the unsuccessful ones are a few key rules - consciously or subconsciously observed:

  • Successful givers give their time freely when they truly feel it is important to do so - for the team cause, organisational good, or for someone important. In doing so, they felt energised and rewarded in their efforts
  • By contrast, when offering help out of duty and without really wanting to do so, they felt depleted and worn down. So choosing the right help to give is a strategic choice to be made

Striking a Balance

Time is also a key factor. Grant noted that by giving too freely, without blocking out time for your own important work and goals, means that you're likely to sabotage your own chances of success and achieving our own goals

  • The lesson here is to strike a balance between giving freely to others and giving to ourselves. It may be that blocking out a time in your day, or your week to help others is also a better way to go about things than being available or willing to deliver random acts of kindness, and that doing it in this concentrated way will more likely increase your energy, raise your productivity and improve your ability to help you or your team succeed

Meeting your own Deliverables

Who you give to also matters.

  • Strategic givers genuinely do give freely of their time and talent to support and help others and engendering their success - and they may do so at all levels of an organisation, especially to other givers who they recognise will reciprocate
  • Importantly they are also careful about who they give to - judiciously learning to avoid those who are simply 'takers' and likely only to drain their energy and resources

Above all, they are cautious about not spreading themselves too thinly and being unable to meet their own required deliverables.

Of course, unless you're Santa Claus, your role probably does involve some 'take' as well as 'give'. The key take-away is that whatever your dominant natural style - giver, taker or matcher, it may well be that by developing the traits of a 'strategic giver' you will not only be more successful in your own work but more valuable in your organisation.