Career Advice: Give

Givers focus on others, takers on themselves, and matchers care most about fairness. Studies show that most professional success, not just satisfaction, goes to givers.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

In 1990, Jon Huntsman, Sr. made a business decision that most in corporate America would probably have called insane. He was intensely negotiating the biggest business deal of his life with Charles Miller Smith, the head of a British chemical company. Deep into the negotiations over the acquisition, Smith's wife died. She had been suffering from terminal cancer. It was unfortunate, but business is business and the negotiation was incomplete. On top of that, Huntsman had millions of dollars on the line -- money that would be his if he just pushed Smith further.

But he didn't.

"I decided the fine points of the last 20 percent of the deal would stand as they were proposed," he later wrote. "I probably could have clawed another $200 million out of the deal, but it would have come at the expense of Charles' emotional state. The agreement as it stood was good enough."

In his 2008 book Winners Never Cheat, Huntsman summarized his philosophy on business and life, writing, "Monetarily, the most satisfying moments in my life have not been the excitement of closing a great deal or the reaping of profits from it. They have been when I was able to help others in need ... There's no denying that I am a deal junkie, but I also have developed an addiction for giving. The more one gives, the better one feels; and the better one feels about it, the easier it becomes to give."

Huntsman is what organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls, in his provocative new book, a "giver." In Give and Take, Grant, the youngest tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, wields a large body of social science research, much of it his own, to challenge the idea that career success is a zero-sum game in which your gains equal my losses, a harmful idea that discourages people from helping each other out at work.

In Grant's book, the reader encounters three types of people: givers, takers, and matchers. Matchers reciprocate favors and good deeds tit-for-tat. Takers try to tilt the balance of a transaction in their own favor, hoping to get more than they give -- the type of person who takes credit for someone else's work. Givers are the opposite. Their hallmark is generosity. Crudely put, givers are focused on others, takers are focused on themselves, and matchers care above all about fairness.

Most people are givers in their personal relationships. They act selflessly and try to contribute more than they take with those they love. But when these people enter the workforce, their style of interacting with others changes dramatically. As Grant told me in an interview, "There is an extraordinary number of people who are in a giver mindset at home and a matcher or taker mindset in the work setting." Only 8 percent of people describe themselves as givers at work. That's because most people think it's safer to operate like a taker or matcher at work; givers, they think, are chumps who will fall behind in the game of life.

Grant explodes that myth in his book, showing that givers are among the most successful people in business. They may also be the happiest. "There is powerful evidence," Grant tells me "that givers experience more meaning in their work than takers or matchers."

This is important considering that Americans spend most of their waking hours -- most of their lives -- at work. The average American man works 8.4 hours per day and the average American woman works 7.7 hours a day. How they feel in those hours is a major determinant of their well-being. But, according to the American Psychological Association, nearly 70 percent of Americans cite work as a major source of stress in their lives and four out of ten say that they experience stress at work on a daily basis. One report indicates that over half of working Americans are unsatisfied and unhappy with their jobs. The top person people don't like being around is, according to the National Time Use survey, their boss. Bosses and work seem to be significant sources of unhappiness for many people.

When people are stressed out, their first instinct is to protect themselves -- or to retreat into a taker mentality. But operating like a giver may actually be more effective in buffering against stress and enhancing well-being. On its face, this is counter-intuitive. Time is a scarce resource, especially for people who are stressed. Being a giver involves taking time away from yourself to help someone else. This could seemingly aggravate stress levels, but it actually alleviates them.

In one study, Grant and a colleague found that givers who were high school teachers were less vulnerable to stress and exhaustion if they saw the impact their giving was having on their students. Across four other studies, researchers found that giving time away -- in the form of volunteering -- makes people feel like they actually have more time than if they spent time on themselves, wasted time, or got a random bit of free time.

Not only does being a giver protect against stress, but it also has lasting benefits on well-being outside of work. In a study of 68 firefighters, Grant and a colleague found that those who helped others on the job felt happier at home at bedtime than those who did not. Interestingly, the increase in happiness from giving was delayed. The firefighters were not any happier at the end of the working day, but only after they had been at home for several hours.

Another study, led by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, shows that the more giving an individual is, the happier he becomes. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: Over a six-week period, they would either perform five random acts of kindness all in one day or to do one act of kindness across five different days. Those who fit all five acts of giving into one day were happier at the end of the study than those who thinly spread their giving out.

Being a giver is a principle many of us apply -- or at least try to -- in our personal lives. It's also one we should internalize in the workplace. As Grant puts it, "Let's ignore the evidence that givers often outperform matchers and takers. Let's say their scores are even. Given that, here is the question I would ask takers: Would you rather achieve success in ways that come at the expense of others or in ways the lift other people up?" He also points out that if you try to be a giver just to get ahead, it probably won't work.