Management Expert Adam Grant on the Benefits of Being Nice

by Ellen Lee on April 22, 2013
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The business world can be a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog kind of place, but it’s OK to be nice. In fact, it may even benefit you, says Adam Grant, a management professor at the Wharton School and author of the new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

Grant’s research into the workplace shows that people tend to fall into one of three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are generous to a fault; they help others without expecting payback. Takers are the opposite; they look out only for themselves (and maybe their bosses). Matchers are in the middle; they grant favors but expect something in return. In his book, Grant argues that givers are the ones who come out ahead.

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently chatted with Grant (pictured) about how entrepreneurs can be both giving and successful.

ISBB: What inspired you to write Give and Take?

Grant: When I started studying job performance and career success, I was really struck by the standard model of hard work, talent, and luck. I felt there was more to success than just having a strong work ethic, developing expertise, and being at the right place at the right time.

What I was really interested in was the role that our interactions play in our success — how the connections and relationships we form and the reputations we build affect the results and promotions that we attain.

How can entrepreneurs be smart about giving without feeling like others are taking advantage of them? 

There are different ways to manage that dilemma. The first is to specialize in forms of giving that are of high benefit to others but of low cost to you. One of my favorite characters in the book talks about the “five-minute favor.” You can often add value to other people’s work and their lives by doing something that takes five minutes or less, like making an introduction or providing some advice, or thanking or recognizing somebody for an otherwise invisible job well done.

The second option is to be more thoughtful about screening who you help. If you identify someone as a taker, you may want to be a little more cautious in your giving than if that person has been generous in the past.

How can small businesses adopt a culture of giving, especially if they’re strapped for time and resources?

There’s a lot of opportunity to think about the products and services that you’re responsible for, the connections and the expertise that you have, and how those can add value to other people. [Those people] might be your employees, your customers, or your colleagues in your community. The question is, Can you look for ways of contributing that are a high benefit to others but potentially a low cost for you or even a win-win?

Can you give us an example?

There is a call-center company in Delaware called Appletree Answering Service. They do a great job with creating a culture of giving and helping. They have an internal version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They allow any employee to make a request of having some dream granted — something meaningful to you that you can’t do on your own. They have a team that works to try to make it happen.

[Appletree] cut through turnover by something like 60 percent. It also ended up really changing the culture in the way that people were much freer about what everyone else around them needed. They tended to look at one another as human beings. They became much more open about giving and receiving help.

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