Extreme Giver Adam Grant Lends Us His Advice On Becoming A More Generous Leader

According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, generosity in the workplace–if done right–can (paradoxically) help you get ahead. How much of a giver are you, and will being more like Adam Grant help your career? Read on.

Extreme Giver Adam Grant Lends Us His Advice On Becoming A More Generous Leader

Wharton professor and extreme giver Adam Grant has devoted the past decade to discovering what characterizes people who achieve extraordinary success in their careers. His conclusion, supported by an exhaustive compilation of academic research, has the potential to influence a massive shift in global workplace behavior.


In his landmark new book, Give and Take, Grant shows us that highly accomplished people (including himself, as a recent lengthy profile in The New York Times Sunday magazine made clear), approach their interactions with others in uncommonly altruistic ways. In a sense, he confirms what virtually every world religion and spiritual tradition has taught through the ages: “For it is in giving that we receive.”

The ideas presented in Give and Take aren’t just applicable to one’s personal or career success. They’re also very likely to affect how we collectively approach workplace leadership going forward.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Grant about why a spirit of generosity is so critical to leadership success. First, a brief summary of his thesis.

The Common Denominators Of The Uber-Successful

Heading into his research, Grant knew successful people shared three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. He’s now been able to prove that “there’s a critical yet often neglected fourth ingredient that profoundly influences high achievement: how one approaches interactions with other people.”

“Every time we interact with another person at work,” he says, “we have a choice to make. Do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?” Grant asserts that people differ dramatically in their preferences for reciprocity, but tend to fall into one of three broad categories:


Takers: Takers like to get more than they give. They put their own interests ahead of others and seek to come out ahead in every exchange.

Matchers: The majority of us are matchers, and we generally give to others in expectation our favors will be returned. It was a matcher who coined the expression, “you owe me one.”

Givers: Givers want to help others independent of an easily foreseeable payback. They’re generous with time and expertise, and go out of their way to help others succeed.

In his book, Grant asks his readers to identify which of these reciprocity styles proves more costly and “sinks people to the bottom of the success ladder?” According to the research–and what you may have guessed–the answer is the givers. Going out of their way to help people prevents them from getting their own work done.

But the professor then asks the important follow-up question: If givers are most likely not to succeed, who’s most likely to land at the very top? And it’s here we learn it’s the givers again. “Across occupations, if you examine the link between reciprocity styles and success, the givers are more likely to become champs–not only chumps.”


To clear up any confusion, Grant’s research proves that the big winners in our society, across all fields and occupations, are those who rate high in concern for others, but also self-interest. They’re people who take determined action to achieve their own ambitious goals while routinely contributing to the success of others. Here are more details from Grant on using generosity to help everyone–including yourself–get ahead. (Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

How To Become A Better Giver At Work

MARK CROWLEY: If we know giving ensures succeeding, why don’t more people lead this way?

ADAM GRANT: Part of the reason I wrote this book is that I was raised by extremely generous parents and came to take giving for granted. But then I got into the workplace and was struck by how many people were paranoid and felt like everyone was a taker and out to get them. Their belief was “If I don’t put myself first, no one will.”

According to Stanford psychologist Dale Miller, when people anticipate self-interested behavior, they believe they’ll be exploited if they operate like givers. So they conclude that “pursuing a competitive orientation is a rational and appropriate thing to do.”

There’s also great popularity in books like Robert Green’s The 48 Laws of Power and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Books like these demonstrate we don’t see much room for giver values in our professional lives. And, finally, when you look at core values and world-views, oftentimes the simpler view is the easier one to hold on to. There are people who believe giving is good and overlook its dark side; and there are people who believe giving is foolish and a great way to be exploited and overlook the upside. Maybe the reason we need to convince more leaders to be givers is because, of course, it’s both.


Why does it always seem as though takers find success despite their self-serving practices?

Let me be clear that givers, takers, and matchers all can–and do–achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: It spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else that loses. Research shows that people tend to envy takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. As the venture capitalist Randy Komisar remarked, “It’s easier to win if everybody wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there, it’s easier to succeed.”

Jonas Salk, who during a press conference announcing the cure for polio, famously failed to acknowledge any of the several scientists who greatly contributed to the breakthrough. Despite Salk’s long-enduring fame, he never went on to win a Nobel Prize, nor was he elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences–recognition that every prominent polio researcher later earned. For being a taker, and for not giving well-deserved credit to people who had helped him, Salk was snubbed by his peers. Such is the karma of takers.

Can you give us a few examples of how workplace leaders can begin to model more generous and supportive practices, and how these drive greater success?

Recognize the full potential in people. In a classic study of elementary school children conducted by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal, all the students in a San Francisco school took a cognitive ability test. Afterward, teachers were given a list of the 20% “deemed as having high potential for intellectual blooming.” Teachers were told these bloomers could be expected to show unusual intellectual gains during the school year, and even two years later, the bloomers were still outgaining their classmates.


But what Rosenthal only disclosed later was that every child identified as a bloomer had been chosen entirely at random. The study was designed to find out what happened to students when teachers believed they had high potential. What it proved was that teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. They set much higher expectations and engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted student confidence and achievement.

What helps make “giver” leaders so successful is that they naturally see people as bloomers and consistently seek to maximize their full human potential.

Share your knowledge and expertise. Leaders with a “taker” mentality often see others as a threat and avoid sharing their knowledge and expertise. “Giver” leaders indulge none of these fears and choose to be extremely generous with their time, expertise, and helping others succeed.

Extensive research reveals that people who give their time and knowledge to help colleagues and subordinates this way end up earning more promotions and raises. And when givers put a group’s interest ahead of themselves, they build much deeper relationships, and often become highly valued within their own organization.

See and express the best in people. I believe that our behaviors leak traces of our motives, and employees can sense when leaders have their best interests at heart. Givers see the best in people and communicate in ways that build trust and show respect for other people’s perspectives. Such caring and generous treatment often brings on the emotion of “elevation,” what NYU professor Jonathan Heidt describes as a warm sensation that people feel in their chest of being moved and inspired to greater heights than they thought they were capable of. The effect is that giving becomes contagious; people want to be more like them–following this lead, spreading this norm, modeling this behavior.


Identify giving tendencies in performance evaluations and job interviews. One of the big changes that I’d like to see is for performance evaluations to not only take into account individual leaders’ results, but also their impact on people around them and the way they achieved them. One very senior leader in a Fortune 500 company asks all leadership candidates he interviews to tell him about four people whose careers they fundamentally enhanced. It turns out a lot of people struggle and stammer when giving their answer. We should have ways of measuring a leader’s impact on people in addition to their personal objectives.

If you’re wondering how much of a giver you are, find out on Grant’s website. Be prepared to be surprised: Most people overestimate their generosity compared to how other people actually see them.

[Image: Flickr user William Warby]