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Nice Guys and Gals Can Finish First

Putting others first—within limits—is an undervalued recipe for business success.

June 25, 2013
KEYWORDS acuc , adam grant , altruism
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Can nice guys—and gals—finish first in the cutthroat business world?

Absolutely—yet they can also finish dead last, says Adam Grant, the prodigious Wharton School of Business professor who specializes in organizational psychology, the study of workplace dynamics.

In his new book, “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller, Grant examines why some individuals who help others succeed rise to the top, while counterparts with the same altruistic drive become doormats, burning out or fading into obscurity.

The 31-year-old Grant, Wharton's youngest tenured professor, has presented solutions for leaders of organizations including Google, the National Football League, IBM, Merck, the World Economic Forum, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, and the U.S. armed forces.

The award-winning researcher and author will deliver his belief in the power of paying it forward in a keynote address at the America’s Credit Union Conference July 3 in New York City.

While self-serving individuals might get to the top more quickly, people who put others first prime themselves for long-term success, Grant says.

“After we cover the usual suspects of hard work, talent, and luck, I find that in the long run the people who rise the highest are those who add the most value to others,” Grant said in a recent Forbes.com interview. “The people who get promoted are those who establish a track record for advancing the interests of the group.”

In his research through many industries and professions, Grant discerned three employee archetypes: Matchers, Takers, and Givers.

Most of us fall into the Matchers category—people who are glad to do favors in return for assistance of more or less equal value—a quid pro quo. A select number are Takers, who strive to obtain as much as possible from others with limited return, while Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.

“Give and Take” shows how one of America’s best networkers developed his connections, why the creative genius behind one of the most popular shows in television history toiled for years in anonymity, how a basketball executive responsible for multiple draft busts transformed his franchise into a winner, and how we could have anticipated Enron’s demise four years before the company collapsed—without ever looking at a single number.

Three major developments have elevated the appeal of “pro-social motivation,” Grant told Forbes.com. The confluence of these factors rewards Givers' altruistic track record while delivering Takers a costly reputational blow:

Popularity of project-based work;
Shift to the service and knowledge economy; and
Emergence of social media.

The main factor determining whether Givers succeed or fail is their ability to set reasonable boundaries, Grant says.

His advice: Take on tasks only when you can add unique value, develop a specialty that will naturally limit the type of requests you receive, and avoid doing favors for Takers—whom you can ferret out by asking whether they'll pay your contribution forward.

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory (www.appreciationatwork.com/assess) will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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