Give and Take

giveandtake-coverGivers or takers? Which group is significantly over-represented at the top of organizations?

Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the givers. And that holds true across all sorts of professions, as Adam Grant shows in his superb book Give and Take.

So why isn’t everyone a giver? Well, one clue may be that givers also dominate on the bottom rungs of organizational hierarchies.

Grant explores why it is that givers tend to succeed in the long run – or fall precipitously.  The book has practical wisdom about how to give without getting burnt out or being exploited by ambitious takers. It makes a totally convincing case for giving as default behaviour. Beyond the individual, it also explores how to nurture a giver culture in an organization.

It’s thorough – Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton – but it’s a story superbly told, drawing on a rich landscape of examples from Lincoln through LinkedIn and Def Jam Records to The Simpsons creative team.

The funny thing, as Grant notes, is that most of us want to be givers. He quotes a seventy country survey,for instance, in which giver values emerged as the number-one guiding principle in life to most people in most countries.

Outside of work we behave much more often and more naturally as givers. Grant quotes recent neuroscience evidence suggesting that giving activates the reward centres in the brain. There’s a wealth of evidence too that giving is associated with happiness, satisfaction and well-being.

But at work, givers tend to hide.  Giving is often associated with weakness. Grant quotes one executive who was convinced that it would undermine her authority if it became known that she was in fact a giver.

Why have we developed this compulsion to hide our inner giver when we go to work? The evidence suggests it may be partly because we systematically under-estimate the number of people who are willing to give. But mostly it’s because we frame work as a competitive environment.

“Workplaces and schools are often designed to be zero-sum environments , with forced rankings and required grading curves that pit group members against one another in win-lose contests. In these settings, it’s only natural to assume that peers will lean in the taker direction, so people hold back on giving…

“As a result, even when they do engage in giving behaviors, people worry that they’ll isolate themselves socially if they violate the norm, so they disguise their giving behind purely self-interested motives.”

The end result is that givers hide: “In my experience,” writes  Grant, ”plenty of people hold giver values but suppress or disguise them under the mistaken assumption that their peers don’t share these values”.

Grant notes that perhaps it’s especially an American thing. He quotes de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, after his visit to the United States in 1835, expressing his surprise that Americans help others freely but find it very hard to admit: ‘they enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest. They often do themselves less than justice’.

Brilliant book, I can’t recommend it enough.


And What Is It To Work With Love?

“And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn

from your own heart,

even as if your beloved

were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved

were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and

reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved

were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion

with a breath of your own spirit.”

– from Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

I attended my first EBBF conference this weekend, slightly daunted by its title Co-Creating The New Enterprise.  I needn’t have worried.  Re-discovering Kahlil Gibran was just one part of a rich programme of presentations and discussions that stretched from Building Altruistic Capital through Nudging Condom Adoption To Combat HIV to Building High Performing Teams Through Authentic Collaboration.

It was heartening that at least a third of the 150 attendees – from 16 countries – must have been under 30 years old. And yet quite a few of them seemed to have already founded, or been involved in creating, some form of social enterprise.

EBBF is, of course, just one small example of the extraordinary ferment of ideas around how, in the real world, we can envision enterprises and economic systems that can deliver for humankind prosperity in its fullest sense.

What distinguishes EBBF perhaps is that it is comfortable with spirituality, drawing freely upon religious insight.  It is Bahá’í inspired but also a genuinely inter-faith space, where agnostics and atheists too can feel equally at home.

It also has experimentation at its core. Its purpose is to create meaningful conversations that will stimulate a continual cycle of learning through consultation, action and reflection.

I came away with some answers and many new questions.  One is the mystery of why if, as the data suggests, many of our deepest motivations at work centre around the desire to serve others, and if, as again the data suggests, it’s when we feel we are serving others that we work at our peak performance, then why is service so rarely at the foreground of our work culture?  Why would I sound almost crazy tomorrow if I were to suggest at the water-cooler that, to quote Gibran: ‘Work is love made visible’?

Why are our deepest motivations so often hidden, and how might we surface them? These are themes to which I would like to return. Meantime, congratulations to the EBBF team of volunteers for arranging a great conference.  If you can be in Barcelona in October, you might want to consider attending the next one.

Coming Up…

Here’s some of the kind of questions that I’d like to explore here:

Craftsmanship. Meaningful work and craftsmanship seem to be connected. We can easily recognise craftsmanship in a potter or a furniture maker. What does it mean in the world of knowledge workers in global enterprises, and how do we foster it?

Women at Work. Sheryl Sandberg has reignited a debate – and been castigated for founding Feminism, Inc.  Does her Lean In prescription move us in the right direction?

The Collaborative Economy.  Can we shift towards an economy that is less competitive and more collaborative?  Is it desirable and feasible?  How would it affect our working life?

Ethics. Perhaps the greatest ethical challenges in global enterprises come in the sales organization. To some, ethical B2B sales is an oxymoron. If so, what can we do to move the ethical needle?

Quiet Innovation. Does a corporate culture that prizes dominance systematically overlook the potential contributions of introverts?

Faith Perspectives. How does religion contribute to the search for a new work ethic? Is meaningful work somehow spirit in action?

The Bottom Line on Happiness.  What’s the ROI on meaningful work?

This being my weekend blog, it’s going to take some time to address these issues.  But I hope you’ll agree that they are interesting lines of enquiry, and want to join the discussion as it unfolds. Stay tuned!