Giving More at Work: How to Do It

Posted on : July 24, 2014

Being a giver at work can drive career success.   As I described in my last post, many of the most successful people are givers who are always looking for ways to help others.  This week we’ll be exploring ways for each of us to become more giving at work.  Most of these ideas come from an amazing book by Wharton professor Adam Grant, called Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our giving

Givers at home, but not at work

Studies show that giving and generosity are key values for the vast majority of us.  In fact, in the developed world, the majority of the population rates giving as their single most important guiding principle.  And we see this easily for people in their non-work lives.  We are very generous with those close to us and most of us don’t keep score on every favor we do for our spouse, our kids or close friends.  We see generosity flow freely in the form of charitable giving and in volunteering to help those in need.

But a funny transformation happens during our commute to work: our perspective on giving changes dramatically.  While a large majority of us hold giving as a core value, by the time we get into the office, only 8% of us do.  At work, there is a fear of being judged as weak or naïve if we are “too giving.”  We fear being taken advantage of by others who are more aggressive.  Cornell economist Robert Frank says that “by encouraging us to expect the worst in others, it brings out the worst in us:  dreading the role of the chump, we are often loath to heed our nobler instincts.”

Becoming a giver at work

So should we change?  If giving can drive our success, can we tap into this path to a more successful career?  First, let me give a warning:  if your primary motivation to become more giving is just to get more for yourself — more money, more success, faster promotions, etc. — then this is NOT a good path for you.  Humans are all pretty good bullsh*t detectors and nothing raises our suspicions more than the perception of inauthenticity.

But if your goal is actually to live your broader life values, to tap into your natural altruistic desires and the resulting good feelings, to be the same authentic person at work that you already are at home, then let yourself open up to giving more at work.  If you do it right success will follow.

How to do itadamgrantgiveandtake

Here are three tactics to be a (smart) giver at work.

Master the “5 Minute Favor”

Be willing to do favors that take 5 minutes or less for anybody.   You have knowledge, expertise and contacts that can be incredibly helpful to the right people at the right time.  Sharing information freely, giving initial feedback or connecting two people are all gifts that don’t take a lot of time or effort.  Be generous with this even if you don’t see any way that this person could help you.   This will set a tone of giving with everyone in your network.  As I talked about last week, giving is contagious and grows the pie for everyone.  As you start giving without expectation of immediate return, it will lead others to do the same.  Try to let go of selecting recipients based on their ability to help you with something.  This ‘matcher’ way of giving can severely limit your ability to expand your network.  Instead this works best when you do this for anybody you come in contact with.  The core belief of this kind of program is a pay-it-forward philosophy of “I’ll do this for you with the expectation that someone else will do something for me at a later date.”

Ask more questions

People love to talk about themselves.  One of the easiest gifts you can give to others is to really listen to them and ask interested questions.   This will connect you with them and you’ll learn what they need.  Ask them how you can be helpful.  This is a great way to find those opportunities for 5 Minute Favors.  Of course, this takes a lot of self-management because we like to talk about ourselves too.  See how much you can let go of that need.  A general rule of thumb in groups is to try to only speak 20% of the time; spend the rest of the time asking questions and letting people share their perspectives.  They will feel good about you and you will learn so much more than if you. Keep. On. Talking.

Look at others’ contributions FIRST

One of the easiest ways to be a giver is to provide appreciation and give credit for others’ contributions to work projects.  But to do this we have to overcome something researchers call responsibility bias.  Basically, we are really good at seeing how much we’ve contributed to a project because we were there for every hour of work we put in and we are intimately familiar with every hurdle we had to overcome.  But when it comes to giving credit for others contribution, we have significantly less information about others work and usually underestimate the effort it took.

But there is an easy way to overcome responsibility bias and that is to simply ask ourselves what others have contributed before counting up our own contributions.  When we make this simple switch, it DOUBLES the amount of effort we see that others have put in (science proves this).   This goes a long way toward having a more realist view of team contributions.   Once you do that, make sure to give full credit for their effort and be outspoken with your gratitude to them.

Your Challenge

Commit to doing one of the following over the next two weeks.

  • Find four ways you can do 5 Minute Favors for people you know or people you just meet.  Keep an ongoing list of those favors in your day-timer or on your phone.  Try to open up to the good feelings of seeing yourself as helpful to others.
  • Go into your next 3 conversations or meetings with the goal of only speaking 20% of the time.  Instead of sharing that next great story, ask them a more detailed question about whatever they just shared with you.  Ask how you can help them and see what happens.
  • Think of a two projects you are working on right now or recently completed.  How have others made significant contributions?  What are some of the important things they’ve done to make the project better and more successful?  Then send them a note of appreciation or even better, send the team a quick summary that gives this person credit for the great work they’ve contributed.

The key is to start giving in professional settings without expectation of return.  If we can let go of those fears of being taken advantage of and give first it will set the tone of giving in your network.  This will ultimately help you positively influence your teams, customers and colleagues and set you on a more successful path.

Next post I’ll talk more about the risks of giving and how to avoid becoming a selfless doormat giver.  But for the next couple weeks, choose something from this post that sounds good to you and try it out!

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach
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