Business

A balanced guide to success

The financial crisis fueled anger with the world's "takers" — those people who "like to get more than they give," in author Adam Grant's pithy definition.

Everyone is searching for a sustainable formula for recovery that not only curbs damaging self-interest but also promotes a meaningful alternative. Here it is.

Grant's new book, "Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success," published by Viking, is perfectly timed and beautifully weighted.

An organizational psychologist, Grant crushes the assumption that me-first takers always reach the top of the ladder. But he also shows how "givers" can adjust their own behavior so they and the wider community benefit.

What makes the book more bracing than the many soppy manuals for better living is that Grant provides convincing evidence in support of dubious-sounding popular theories, such as "what goes around, comes around" and "karma."

Rather than dodging possible paradoxes, he entertainingly addresses and explores the contradictions thrown up by the academic work — for instance that assertive speakers are sometimes less effective than tentative ones. He illustrates his theme with colorful stories about writer George Meyer, the generous collaborative spirit behind "The Simpsons," and the fake giving of Enron's Kenneth Lay.

The key to successful giving, he says, lies in being neither completely selfish nor entirely altruistic, but in combining both.

If business success were redefined on givers' terms — as achievements that have a positive effect on others — Grant says companies would have to change the way they "hire, evaluate, reward and promote" their staff. It is a lofty goal, but on this evidence there are many good reasons to aim for it.

For instance, givers who ask questions of their customers rather than asserting the answers sell more than aggressive takers. Givers build stronger networks, whose members repay their generosity, often years later.

People who give too much of themselves by, say, helping colleagues to the detriment of their own work, can avoid turning into "doormats" by dodging the traps of being too trusting, too empathetic or too timid. Grant shows them how to become "otherish givers" — the only cumbersome turn of phrase in the book — and balance the benefits to themselves and others.

On that basis, leadership development programs, which select talented staff for closer attention, may have got it the wrong way round. Psychologists now believe anyone with "grit" — underlying qualities of passion and perseverance — can achieve higher performance. Teachers who are givers see potential where others do not, motivating gritty achievers.

Acts of kindness help people achieve happiness and meaning, the research shows, which in turn motivate them to work harder.

Far from merely "giving something back" (an arid phrase that raises the question of what they took away in the first place), big philanthropists' early generosity may have started them on the path to success. Grant cites Jon Huntsman Sr., philanthropist and chairman of the chemical group of the same name, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, as examples.

Above all, Grant's book is optimistic, a refreshing change after years of reading angry indictments of fallen corporate idols.

Academia is hung up about whether givers are motivated by self-interest or are truly altruistic. Grant, the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, sweeps away this debate: the consequences are important, not the causes.

Grant used to be a bit of a doormat himself. As an outstanding national junior diver, he once gave so much good advice to rival athletes, that they beat him in an important competition. But he obviously learned his lesson and is about to reap the reward of his "otherish giving." On the basis of this excellent book, he thoroughly deserves his success.

Andrew Hill is the management editor of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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