I caught up with Adam Grant, the youngest tenured and single highest-rated professor at The Wharton School. He is a former record-setting advertising director, junior Olympic springboard diver, and professional magician. His consulting and speaking clients include Google, the NFL, Goldman Sachs, Merck, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, and the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. He is one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors and one of the world’s top 40 business professors under 40. He is the author of the new bestselling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, which explains why success today relies on how we interact with others. The following is a brief interview I did with Adam about how his book applies in a work environment.
Dan Schawbel: What happens when you have more takers than givers on a team and what impact can that have on the rest of the company?
Adam Grant: There’s a wealth of evidence that even one bad apple can spoil the barrel. When multiple people act like takers, many employees become paranoid, fearing—rightfully so—that their colleagues might be out to get them. They end up focusing much of their time and energy on protecting themselves against exploitation, or even on punishing takers. For instance, Matej Cerne and his colleagues have shown that when people work with takers, they reciprocate by hiding knowledge from them. This means that the rest of the company misses out on productive collaboration, as well as creative and innovative ideas that might have otherwise been shared. The end result is frequently a whole that is less than the sum of the parts.
DS: How can you help someone who is more successful than you?
AG: It’s rare that anyone, however successful, will have an identical base of knowledge and web of connections. Offering to share articles, give feedback, and make introductions are natural ways of helping successful people gain access to new information and build relationships outside their existing networks. I’ve seen some people turn down these offers because they’re busy, in which case it might be possible to help them by volunteering to handle a task that’s on their plate. If you’re trying to help someone who doesn’t need or want help personally, it’s worth thinking about how you could be helpful to other people who matter to them—their children, spouses, friends, or colleagues.
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DS: Workers, especially millennials, are desperate for mentors. How do they convince someone to become their mentor? How should the mentoring relationship work?
AG: When you’re looking for someone to mentor you, I suggest starting by seeking advice. As Katie Liljenquist’s studies show, people generally enjoy giving advice. You might approach a few people who you admire, and ask them if they’re willing to spend 10-15 minutes sharing their wisdom and experience. A few weeks or months later, update them on how you’ve followed their guidance, and how you benefited from it. From there, you can ask them if they’re willing to touch base informally a couple times per year to continue learning from their insights. In my own research, I’ve found that people are most willing to continue giving when they can directly see how their help and advice made a difference. Many mentees feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end without giving back—they don’t want to feel like takers. I like to remind them that the mentee’s responsibility is to provide the mentor with a meaningful opportunity to be a giver. After all, in my view, a mentor is someone who sees more potential in us than we see in ourselves. We can help mentors feel useful and appreciated by following their advice and living up to that potential.
DS: What impact does being a giver have on your own productivity if you’re spending so much time helping others?
AG: Whether giving is costly or beneficial depends on whom, when, and how you help. With respect to whom, if you focus on helping people who share your goals, making them more successful is often conducive to your own productivity. Also, if you focus on helping matchers and givers rather than takers, they’ll be less likely to take advantage of your generosity—and more inclined to pay it back and forward. As for when to help, Leslie Perlow and her colleagues find that it’s important to block out windows for individual tasks, to avoid interruptions. In terms of how to help, if you contribute in ways that align with your interests and expertise, giving can become energizing and efficient, rather than exhausting and distracting. Finally, you can scale your giving more efficiently if you directly ask the people you’ve helped to help others. One of my favorite exemplars is Adam Rifkin, who was named Fortune’s best networker. Adam regularly goes out of his way to do five-minute favors, which add high value to others’ lives at a low cost to him. He’s a master of making introductions in the technology industry—if you’re an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, odds are that he can find you a co-founder or programmer in no time. He loves connecting people, and he has such a rich network that it’s easy and fun for him. After he helps people, he often asks them to help him help others, and he has plenty of support from givers and matchers. I’ve met several people—Eghosa Omoigui and Lisa Winter are two wonderful examples—who serve as informal guardians for Adam, protecting his time, energy, and resources against takers.