I’ve been catching up on the work of renowned organizational psychologist Adam Grant. Wharton’s youngest full professor and single highest-rated teacher, Grant has been recognized as one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors, one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40, and one of Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite social science writers. And Grant’s life work has led him to the conclusion that giving is the secret to getting ahead, as a New York Times Magazine cover story about Grant put it.
Many of you might be aware of Grant’s 2013 bestselling book Give and Take, which was hard to miss last year. It was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller that was also named one of the best books of 2013 by Amazon, Apple, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Oprah named it one of her riveting reads, Fortune deemed it a must-read business book, Harvard Business Review considered it amongst the ideas that have shaped management, and The Washington Post named it a book that every leader should read.
OK, so I’m a year behind the curve, but the book lives up to the hype. It’s a fascinating - and important - read.
As an organizational psychologist, Grant has devoted himself to understanding how work can be designed so that people will actually enjoy doing it and want to continue doing it. The traditional theory was that employees were driven by straightforward areas of self interest, be they financial incentives or work that is interesting and offers a path to advancement. Grant’s research has exploded this thinking, asserting that people can be deeply motivated by the opportunity to be of service to their fellow mankind. In fact, Grant has proven that when an employee’s work contributes to improving the lives of others, that worker is more productive than he would be if his job only benefited himself.
Grant’s early research stemmed from some intriguing experiments about how helping others helps the giver work more productively. One of the experiments took place in a call center whose primary purpose was funding scholarships. Grant arranged for a student who benefited from that fundraising to speak to the callers and explain how life-changing the scholarship was.
Here’s what that little 10-minute chat yielded: one month later, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script. A later study showed that revenues increased by more than 400 percent, and that even simply showing the callers letters from grateful recipients increased their fundraising. None of the callers believed that the idea of helping others had been the driving factor in their increased success. But Grant parsed the data and knew the truth, even if the callers weren’t conscious that charitable feelings had spiked their motivations.
Other experiments conducted by Grant have yielded the same results. One study, at a hospital, involved two sets of signs at hand-washing stations. One sign reminded doctors and nurses that “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Guess which station had more soap use? The station with the sign that mentioned helping patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.
Another study which tested how prosocial behavior works in the corporate world arrived at the same conclusions. An experiment at a Borders bookstore gave employees the opportunity to donate to a fund helping two different needy colleagues - one a pregnant worker with limited resources for her baby; the other for an employee handling the funeral of a loved one. Borders offered matching gifts for all employee-generated funds.
The results were unequivocal. Even donors who just gave a few dollars a week showed a marked increase in loyalty and commitment to Borders, and showed gratitude to the company for the opportunity to give back.
All of these findings are a reminder to companies that when it comes to corporate giving, being a good corporate citizen doesn’t just help your community, it helps your company in very concrete, bottom-line ways.
Here are four of Grant’s takeaways about successful giving, all of which are helpful pointers for companies as well as people:
1. Be concerned about others but also about your own interests. Giving that benefits you and the recipient in some way will lead to a more satisfying and recurring experience.
2. Be strategic in your giving. If you want to maximize the effect of your giving, don’t give to opportunistic “takers” - give to others who themselves rate giving back as a priority.
3. Give in ways that reinforce your social ties. Giving back in ways that tap into a social experience makes giving more accessible and desirable.
4. Consolidate your giving into chunks so that the impact is enough to feel gratifying. It’s the spotlight vs. strobe light theory - a single concentrated source of light yields more impact than diffuse light that lacks focus.
Above all, for companies, institute a culture of giving back that makes your employees not only more enthusiastic about their work, but much better at their jobs. As Grant has discovered, giving back is a proven win-win that benefits the greater good as well as the self interest of every entity involved.