Why Giving Back Helps You Get More Done

A Wharton professor has dedicated himself to “prosocial motivation”–and it’s brought him a ton of returns.

Why Giving Back Helps You Get More Done

In the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Susan Dominus observes organizational psychologist Adam Grant, a prodigious professor at Wharton. In a field “preoccupied” with efficiency and productivity, she says, Grant is the most efficient and productive.


His secret? He’s staggeringly generous. Watching him rapidly attend to the needs of his students, Dominus says that he’s “some kind of robo-rabbi,” vigilant for opportunities to assist.

“Helpfulness,” she writes, “is his credo.”

The article is an edifying read–and being a Sunday magazine piece, a long one–but it also has some succulent skimmables for time-pressed Tuesdays. Allow us to be the momma bird and do half the digestion for you.

Flipping the field

Organizational psychology, Dominus writes, has traditionally been based around models of employee self-interest, like financial incentives, interesting work, and career advancement. Compared to that, Grant’s research feels altogether altruistic:

The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.

Changing the outlook

As you might guess, Grant’s research (mostly) dovetails with his daily life. Dominus captures the way he approaches one of the most humdrum of business frenemies, the inbox:


An in-box filled with requests is not a task to be dispensed with perfunctorily (or worse, avoided); it’s an opportunity to help people, and therefore it’s an opportunity to feel good about yourself and your work. “I never get much done when I frame the 300 e-mails as ‘answering e-mails,'” Grant told me. “I have to look at it as, How is this task going to benefit the recipient?” Where other people see hassle, he sees bargains, a little work for a lot of gain, including his own.

Wording leads to motivation

Grant has clever techniques for measuring how wanting to help others increases our drive–what they call “prosocial motivation.” For one such study, Grant put two different signs at hospital hand-washing stations:

  • Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases
  • Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases

Grant then measured the amount of soap used at each spot. The result? The station with the sign told of patients had 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer used–evidencing an increase in motivation.

And, Grant says, thinking about how your work affects others can be motivating even in fluorescent-flooded corporate dungeons. If pencil pushing isn’t inherently meaningful, thinking about how it can help your co-workers will up your motivation.

Unforeseen returns

Since Grant is always doing stuff for everybody, the world feels like it owes him a favor. And that kind of social capital creates wealth for everybody involved:

When Grant calls on a work contact and asks her to meet with an undergraduate seeking work, chances are that contact is more than happy to enable Grant’s favor, because she has already been the beneficiary of more than one from him herself. The path to success is filled with people helping to clear the way.

And as Wharton PhD Justin Berg notes, the best ideas come to the people touching multiple worlds. Since Grant’s building all these relationships all the time, he’s at the nexus of many a network.


So if you give a lot of yourself to people, then you’ll build relationships across domains, which will have unforeseen and long-term benefits, from helping friends help friends to availing you to new ideas. How delightfully selfish.

Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

[Image: Flickr user John Ryan]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.