Do you believe that only a**holes make it to the top? Do you think that being Mr. or Ms. Nice is a sure-fire way to be left behind? According to Wharton Professor Adam Grant, it’s time to rethink the common notion that “nice guys” finish last. More often, they finish first! Grant’s research shows how givers—people who do more for others than they expect in return—rise in organizations. But not all givers succeed equally.

What’s In A Gift?

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give. ―Winston Churchill
The rituals of gifts and giving are as old as human society. Giving is an effective way of strengthening relationships.

French sociologist Marcel Mauss explains that a gift creates a social obligation to reciprocate. What’s more, the act of giving confirms the social status of the giver. For example, in traditional Native American Potlatch ceremonies, the host gave away a significant portion of his wealth to the guests. The social status of the host was affirmed by the amount of wealth he could afford to give away. And, of course, the recipients were obligated to host their own Potlatch in the future.


Psychologist Robert Cialdini lists reciprocity as one of six influence tactics used effectively by marketers and grandmothers alike.

Cialdini presents the results of a study conducted at a British pharmaceutical company. The company wanted to improve the completion rates for a survey sent to physicians. Half of the physicians were sent a survey with a promise of £20 upon completion; the other half received a survey with a check for £20 enclosed. Of the doctors receiving a promise, 66% completed the survey. Of those receiving a check, 78% returned the survey!

You might ask: what about the 22% of doctors who received a check and did not complete the survey? Simple. None of them cashed the check!

How does it work? Accepting a gift creates a psychological pressure to return the favor. It turns out that the delicious apple pie baked by Grandma is a good way to get Junior to visit her in the future.

Givers, Takers, and Matchers

Most people resort to one of three strategies for exchange with others. Takers try to win as much as they can from the interaction. Matchers seek to give as much as they get. Givers, according to Grant, are “the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.”

Grant’s research confirms that givers do in fact get exploited from time to time. In a society made up of hawks (who always fight for what they want) and doves (who back away from conflict), the hawks soon take over. However, by applying boundaries, givers can and do thrive even in extremely competitive organizations. For example, givers might refuse to help notorious takers and may set aside blocks of “do not disturb” time to ensure their personal productivity.

By helping others proactively, givers build a large network of colleagues who are ready to return the favor in the future. This wave of goodwill helps carry the giver to higher positions and sustain her once she is there.

What works on an individual level also applies for groups and organizations. A review of management literature by Nathan Podsakoff and colleagues concluded that higher rates of giving in organizations is predictive of favorable business outcomes such as increased profits, customer satisfaction, and productivity, as well as lower costs and employee turnover.

What’s a Leader to Do?

Practice the Five-Minute Favor. Can you help someone in five minutes or less? Introducing two people who may be able to help each other doesn’t require a lot of effort but can have a big impact.  Other five-minute favors could be sharing an article or endorsing a colleague on a social network.

Give the gift of meaning. Many people struggle to see the direct impact of their work on others. Making the impact visible can lead to dramatic results. For example, employees at a call center devoted to raising funds for college scholarship generated 170% more revenue after they met a real person who had received a scholarship (for only 10 minutes!).

Ask others to help. Ask people to “pay the favor forward” to someone else, even if you don’t ask for a return favor yourself. Unless you know otherwise, assume that someone is helpful and collaborative.

Set boundaries. Rather than helping everyone all of the time, set aside blocks of time devoted to giving. Concentrate your giving in areas that are dear to your heart. Decide on when you need to be personally involved and when you can help by involving someone else. This will allow you to maintain the energy to keep helping in the long-run.

Shape the culture. Your behavior as a leader has a strong impact on whether your team develops a giver, taker, or matcher culture. Team incentives promote a culture of sharing. On the other hand, forced-ranking systems promote a culture of individual performers. One way to foster a giving culture is to reward leaders based on the positive impact they have on other teams and departments. For example, by tracking how many people under the leader’s supervision have been promoted.

Adam Grant explaining the reasons for success:

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How you can take the art of giving too far (humor):

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Cialdini, R. (2006). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Harper Business.

Dominus, S. Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? The New York Times, 27 March 2013.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. New York: Viking.

Podsakoff, N.P., Whiting, S.W., Podsakoff, P.M., & Blume, B.D. (2009). Individual- and organizational-level consequences of organizational citizenship behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 122-141.

Schnabel, D. Adam Grant: Be a Giver Not a Taker to Succeed at Work. Forbes. 9. April 2013.

Image courtesy of asenat29 / CC BY-SA 2.0