On Being with Krista Tippett

Adam Grant

Successful Givers, Toxic Takers, and the Life We Spend at Work

Last Updated

October 22, 2015

Original Air Date

October 22, 2015

The organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who many know from his New York Times columns, describes three orientations of which we are all capable: the givers, the takers, and the matchers. These influence whether organizations are joyful or toxic for human beings. His studies are dispelling a conventional wisdom that selfish takers are the most likely to succeed professionally. And he is wise about practicing generosity in organizational life — what he calls making “microloans of our knowledge, our skills, our connections to other people” — in a way that is transformative for others, ourselves, and our places of work.


Image of Adam Grant

Adam Grant is the Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management and professor of psychology at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Originals, Give and Take, and co-author, with Sheryl Sandberg, of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.


October 22, 2015

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I first learned about the organizational psychologist Adam Grant in a New York Times Magazine piece that described his prodigious success that is only matched by a legendary generosity to colleagues, strangers, and especially his students. His extensive and innovative studies show that most of us can find meaning in any kind of work when we perceive ourselves to be of service — whether we realize this is our motivation or not. And he is wise about making what he calls “microloans of our knowledge, our skills, our connections to other people” in a way that can be transformative for us and others, and our workplaces. Adam Grant has more than a few subversive perceptions for all of us to apply — unsettling old notions that only the greedy rise to the top.

DR. ADAM GRANT: This tendency to look for ways to improve the lives of others, to want to help others, and enjoy that without expecting anything in return — which I think is at the heart of being a giver — is actually something that does not have to compromise your professional success. Just as you wouldn’t worry that you’re going to be a bad parent if you’re generous. Or you’re going to be a terrible community member if you care about the people who live near you. You can also be an extraordinarily successful professional if you demonstrate concern for the people that you work with.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Adam Grant is the youngest tenured and highest-rated professor at the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania. And he’s consulted for numerous organizations including Google, the United Nations, and the U.S. Army. He became known to many through his popular book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, it’s interesting because this passion you have for giving and helping and service — all of these things are associated, I think, with spiritual traditions at their best. I’m just — tell me, how do you trace the beginnings of those passions and curiosities in your life?

DR. GRANT: Well, I think I had some amazing role models who were extremely generous, and in ways that I never would have expected. So growing up, my grandmother once drove two and a half hours through a snowstorm so that my mom could go exercise. And my grandmother lived, like, five miles away. So this is a fairly unusual effort. And, you know, I remember at the time being really touched by it. And she was always at our house making great meals for us, and, I guess my grandparents on both sides were very, very heavily involved in our lives. And I just thought grandparents were the coolest thing ever, because the whole role was about giving.


DR. GRANT: And I remember — I think this is something we all experience when we receive unexpected and meaningful gifts — we want to pay it back, but there’s really nothing you can do to pay it back. So the next best thing is to pay it forward. And I guess that happened to me a lot as a kid.

And then in high school, I was a diver, the springboard kind, not the scuba kind. And I had very little talent. I walked like Frankenstein, [laughs] I could hardly jump or even touch my toes. And I had this incredible coach, Eric Best, who said, “Yeah, that’s the bad news. But the good news is diving is a nerd sport, and it attracts all the people who are too slow for track, and too short for basketball, and too weak for football. So if you put in a lot of energy, you could become pretty good at this.”

And that really lit a fire under me, but what was remarkable about Eric was we only had diving season from November through March. And he took countless hours out of his spring, summer, and early fall to coach me, just volunteering. And he said, “As a coach, I will put in whatever you put in.”

And he didn’t get any compensation for it. He really loved diving and he really took joy in helping his divers grow, personally as well as athletically. And, you know, that was really a life-changing experience for me. I ended up getting good enough that I qualified for the Junior Olympic Nationals twice, and…


DR. GRANT: …ended up going to dive at the NCAA level in college. And, I guess I just began to believe the world would be a better place if we could bring out that quality in those around us. Abraham Lincoln called it “the better angels of our nature.”

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Yes.

DR. GRANT: And I think we all have better angels, but that oftentimes, the way we’ve lived our lives, it doesn’t necessarily bring them out.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And you’ve ended up working a lot with people in organizations and with organizations and how they work with people. I think that’s also a sphere of our public life where there’s always a lot of reasonable cynicism. Right? I mean, even these days we have new models of business which turn out as they mature to look like old models of business with much cooler perks.

But I see you really working against that cynical edge. And one of the things you’ve talked about, and that your book is about — that you’ve coined this language of givers and matchers and takers. And I want to talk about matchers and takers a little later on.

But I want to first talk about givers. So tell me how you start talking about this personality type — or this, I don’t know, you wouldn’t call it a personality type, would you? What would you call it?

DR. GRANT: I would call it a style of interacting with others or…


DR. GRANT: …or maybe a value or a motivation.


DR. GRANT: I think that it’s actually challenging, because it seems like the workplace is the last place we should ever talk about generosity.


DR. GRANT: And that’s exactly why — it’s part of the reason why I think we need it there.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a very fraught place to talk about it.

DR. GRANT: It is. It’s…


DR. GRANT: …it’s difficult. And I will be the first to tell you, I’m extremely skeptical of the motivations of leaders and of the reasons that drive a lot of business decisions.


DR. GRANT: But what’s fascinating to me about this topic is that most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. [laughs]

DR. GRANT: If you even believe in the slightest …

MS. TIPPETT: This is where we spend our lives.

DR. GRANT: It is, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: I do. You do, right?


DR. GRANT: So Krista, if you buy the idea that generosity is a core value in life — the data are actually pretty strong that it may be the core value in life, but we don’t even have to go that far. We can just say it’s one of the most important values that people hold dear. It’s a little bit of a tragedy to leave that out of the place where they spend the majority of their hours.


DR. GRANT: And what I’ve encountered over and over again in my career, both with students and with the executives I’ve worked with, is they often feel like they have to check those values at the office door.


DR. GRANT: And I think that’s a mistake. And I guess what I set out to reveal was that this tendency to look for ways to improve the lives of others, to want to help others, and enjoy that without expecting anything in return — which I think is at the heart of being a giver — is actually something that does not have to compromise your professional success.


DR. GRANT: Just as you wouldn’t worry that you’re going to be a bad parent if you’re generous. Or you’re going to be a terrible community member if you care about the people who live near you.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. [laughs]

DR. GRANT: Right? You can also be an extraordinarily successful professional if you demonstrate concern for the people that you work with.

MS. TIPPETT: Right so …

DR. GRANT: And that I think is the story here.


DR. GRANT: Or part of the story.

MS. TIPPETT: And one of the things that you have demonstrated in your research is that givers are over-represented among the people who are least successful. And I — by certain measures that we use. They can be people who burn out and stay behind while other people get ahead for various reasons. But, they are also over-represented at the other end of that spectrum of people who, by certain metrics, we qualify as successful.

DR. GRANT: That’s right. I think that was one of the biggest surprises here, is that people who are generous were the most likely to fail big and succeed big.


DR. GRANT: And that always begs the question, what’s the difference between the failed and successful givers?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

DR. GRANT: And I’ve gotten a lot clearer about this since I wrote Give and Take. I think that it fundamentally comes down to the choices we make every day about who we help, when we help, and how we help. So the “who” is, I think, pretty simple. Failed givers are the people who help anyone. Successful givers are much more likely to be thoughtful about what is this person’s history and reputation like? Before I go and overextend myself and give you 17 hours, I might want to find out if you’re likely to take advantage of me.


DR. GRANT: And exercise just a little bit of caution or self-protection there. The “when” is basically about protecting time to make sure that you achieve your own goals. One of the mistakes that failed givers make is they drop everything for any request that comes in.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. GRANT: And what you see with successful givers is they’re much more likely to prioritize and say, “OK, I’ve got these windows blocked out to make sure I can progress on my own tasks.”


DR. GRANT: “And then I have other periods of time set aside to try to be helpful and responsive to others.”

MS. TIPPETT: So there is a balance between the concern you have for others and the concern you have for yourself, the value with which you also hold yourself.

DR. GRANT: There has to be.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: If there’s not, you’re at much higher risk for burnout. You’re also at greater risk for being exploited.


DR. GRANT: And it’s just like on an airplane, right? You have to secure your oxygen masks before assisting others. And the irony is, if you look at 30-plus years of data on this, the people who are the most selfless, the most altruistic, actually give less than the people who balance concern for others with concern for self.

MS. TIPPETT: Give less measured how? What does that mean?

DR. GRANT: Every metric you can measure — money, time, skills, connections. If you are selfless to the point of self-sacrifice, at some point you run out of energy and resources…


DR. GRANT: …to be able to able to contribute to others.


DR. GRANT: Whereas people who are able to work toward their own goals, or at least keep their own interests in the rear view mirror when they’re helping others, are able to sustain their energy and their resources. And that allows them to give much more over time.

MS. TIPPETT: A couple of other things that I really find interesting in the way you talk about this. One is, you say — and this is why I kind of corrected myself when I said a personality type. You say we — you believe that we all have the giving muscle, but some of us exercise it more.

DR. GRANT: That’s a great way to capture it. And yeah, some of us feel those impulses more often. Some of us express them more often. But it’s very true that we all have moments of giving and generosity where we’re just focused on how we can make somebody else’s life a little bit better. And it also turns out to be the case that if you exercise that muscle, it gets stronger.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: As people practice helping others, they start to notice what other people need. And when you notice what other people need, it’s hard not to want to help them.

MS. TIPPETT: Another thing that I found really interesting is that this giver profile — that these people, it doesn’t necessarily correspond to outer veneer, like, who would come to mind as the most cheerful and nice, in terms of presence and affect.

DR. GRANT: This is also a surprise to me.


DR. GRANT: I tended to associate agreeableness with generosity.


DR. GRANT: So the agreeable people are the nice, friendly, welcoming, polite — and I just assumed if you’re nice to somebody that means you care about them. But there’s this whole class of people who would actually score in the data as disagreeable givers. They might be gruff and tough on the surface. They’re skeptical, critical, and challenging. But at the end of the day, they have other people’s best interests at heart. And they’re actually, in my experience, the most undervalued people in our lives.


DR. GRANT: Because if you’re a disagreeable giver, you’re the person who gives the critical feedback that nobody wants to hear, but everyone needs to hear. Right? You’re playing devil’s advocate, you’re asking tough questions, you’re challenging…


DR. GRANT: …the status quo, and we need to appreciate those people much more in our lives than we currently do.

MS. TIPPETT: This one is so interesting because on the surface it’s a little surprising. Then the minute you start thinking about it you think of those people who, as you say, might be gruff or stern in a way that makes you rise to the occasion, but who also have huge hearts. And you always know that. And you’re right, they’re kind of these bedrock people.

DR. GRANT: They are. And there was a software engineer at Google who had a great way of describing them. He said, “Oh, a disagreeable giver is somebody who has a really bad user interface, but a great operating system.”

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. GRANT: I thought that was endearing.

[music: “Candela” by Mice Parade]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with organizational psychologist and Give and Take author, Adam Grant.

[music: “Candela” by Mice Parade]

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Another thing you talk about that’s — I just have to say, I find very refreshing — is you have found that we tend to think that what we are looking for as human beings, as professional people in particular, is work that is interesting that leads to advancement. You say that a sense of being of service to others is, on balance, a greater motivator than those things, and actually makes people more productive.

DR. GRANT: You know, this is one of those things that’s pretty hard to make a case for on its face. Right?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: We think that people are fundamentally selfish. And that’s the value you ought to appeal to if you want to motivate people. And yet, look at all the things that people would never do for themselves that they constantly do for others. Whether it’s something as simple as a boring task where you persist, because you really care about the client who might benefit from it, whether it’s all of the hours you might spend in the car driving your kids from place to place that you just wouldn’t have bothered if it was only for you. Working in a job that’s extremely difficult to sustain, because it’s physically taxing, it’s exhausting, it’s degrading, because you’re trying to provide for your family. But these are all things that people struggle immensely to do for themselves, but they readily do for others. And when I studied this, it was with fundraising callers who were doing a pretty…


DR. GRANT: …unpleasant task.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. A call center…

DR. GRANT: Trying to make …

MS. TIPPETT: …right?

DR. GRANT: Exactly. Yeah. They’re calling alums of universities and trying to get them to donate their hard-earned money. And when they were told about all the benefits of doing the job for themselves, it didn’t affect their motivation at all. But when they realized that they were actually providing scholarships to help students go to school, their efforts dramatically spiked. So in one case, just hearing from a scholarship student for five minutes about how that scholarship made a difference was enough to boost weekly time on the phone by about 142 percent per caller, and 171 percent weekly revenue. And then we found that could get even bigger — that if you got a scholarship student in who really deeply appreciated the work that the callers were doing, the average caller spiked more than four times greater money raised per week than before.

MS. TIPPETT: But something else so interesting in the way you describe that study is that the call center employees, while all these — this productivity went up as you describe — the effect of that demonstration of the service they were providing was more unconscious than conscious, right? I mean, they didn’t walk away saying, “Oh, I understand how I’m helping, and now I’m going to do better.” It was more something that just touched them at a granular level.

DR. GRANT: Yeah, this was not what I anticipated going in. I had the data. It was a bunch of randomized controlled experiments. I had how the callers were doing before and afterward. I was comparing them to different control groups. And it was very clear that it was this experience of hearing from and meeting a scholarship student that boosted their motivation. And yet, when they filled out surveys, they didn’t attribute any of the changes in their motivation to that experience whatsoever.

And I think it was very hard — it’s hard for any of us to say, “Yeah, I just had this five minute interaction with a random person, and now I work twice as hard as I did before.” Right? Most people don’t believe that small encounters can have that kind of large impact.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

DR. GRANT: And yet, the data show otherwise.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you also had this example of doctors and nurses at — just at a hand station where people are supposed to use soap or hand sanitizer. The difference between the sign reading “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases,” and the sign reading “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases,” and that the latter actually motivates people to wash their hands, in a different way.

DR. GRANT: That was a lot of fun. Dave Hofmann and I ended up doing this study after I was in the hospital with my wife when we were expecting our first child. And there were all these signs plastered around that said, “Gel in, wash out.”


DR. GRANT: And you know, as an organizational psychologist, I just looked at those signs and said, “This is not a how-to problem. People know how to wash their hands. It’s a why-to problem. They need a reason to do it.” And the medical safety experts were all convinced that you have to just remind people, doctors and nurses especially, that this could affect them. And so we tested the signs. They were identical, we just changed the word from “you” to “patients.” And only the patient sign worked. It led more soap and gel to be used.

MS. TIPPETT: You measured the soap, right?

DR. GRANT: [laughs] I didn’t personally, but there’s an environmental services team that actually weighed the soap and gel dispensers.


DR. GRANT: Based on the signs. But there were also — there were professionals on each unit doing covert observations of whether you washed according to guidelines before and after patient contact.


DR. GRANT: And we got about a ten percent spike in frequency when it said “patients,” but not when it said “you.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And, one thing that people say of you, and I think — a huge reason that your work has such credibility is because you really are someone who — you practice what you preach. I first read about you in that New York Times Magazine piece, 2013.

DR. GRANT: Oh, dear.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah, you probably — I can imagine that that was, I mean — you were kind of put under the microscope for that, I think. But you know, here’s one of the lines. “For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand. It is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity” — for you first, and then as you go out in the world, as you find, in other people. There’s this one line, “helpfulness is Grant’s credo.” And I just — how would you — obviously these are something, these are things somebody wrote about you. But what does that mean, and how does that credo break down into practical actions in the course of an ordinary day?

DR. GRANT: Well, I guess, if you look at the evidence on this, the thing people want most in a job is a sense of meaning and purpose. They want to know what they do matters. And that’s been true for literally generations across the American workforce. And you find similar things in other parts of the world. We want to contribute to others. That’s the biggest source of meaningfulness. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that that’s something that I, and many others, find motivating. And yet we don’t have great narratives about — “I really love helping others, and that’s the reason that I work so hard.”


DR. GRANT: Right? That’s not a modest thing to say. I guess, for me, I really enjoy being helpful when I can. I think it helps me feel that what I’m doing does make a difference, and that I’ve made choices that have value to others, not just to me. And as a professor, the two things that I love most are trying to share knowledge, and make introductions. And there are few things more exciting than when somebody poses a question like, “Has anybody ever studied…?” and then, you know, brings in a problem that has to do with work or psychology, which are my core areas of expertise. And I happen to know of a study that actually speaks directly to it, and provides a novel solution.

MS. TIPPETT: But also, here’s what I think is really interesting about this, too. Clearly you’re passionate about the work you do, the actual research you do, and the teaching, the subject matter, the knowledge that you transmit. And that’s part of the service aspect of your work. But a lot of this helping is about things that happen, you might say, around the edges of that work. It’s the human connective tissue, not just around the work, but in the place where you are with students and other professors and colleagues and clients.

I think even that is interesting in helping other people stretch their imaginations about what it means to kind of go through your days, including your working days, as a giver. Do you know what I mean? It’s not just a linear, narrow thing about the precise tasks you are performing and being paid for. Do you know what I mean?

DR. GRANT: I do. Although Krista, I think that’s an overly gracious description. The way I see it is, my core job is research and teaching. But you can’t do either of those things without building meaningful relationships with extraordinary people.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: And every day, there are — I guess, opportunities you stumble into, where — and this, to me, is the hallmark of trying to live your life as a giver, where you can do something that benefits other people more than it costs you.


DR. GRANT: And that just seems efficient, right? Aside from the fact that it seems like the right thing to do, it’s like, OK, it’s not a core part of your job description, but the benefit to others is so much greater than the cost to you. How could you not do it?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I think — and I just want to kind of draw you out on this — I’ve been talking about this a lot with people lately, how the notion of meaningful work is getting decoupled from just your job title or the organization you work for. I mean, what you’re talking about — you are researching that. But you’re also talking about just how you are present, how a person is present, as a human being in all the relationships that surround and weave through whatever work we do. And that that also is service.

DR. GRANT: I think that’s where a lot of people derive actually the greatest meaning from their work. One of the most inspiring bodies of research on this for me has been by two great colleagues, Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton. And they studied this idea of job crafting, which is saying, “Look, instead of being a passive recipient of my job, I’m going to become an active architect of it, and shape it to better align with my skills, interests, and values.” And they basically make the point that your job wasn’t, in most cases, designed for you. It was designed for a whole bunch of people to perform it in a consistent way. And there’s a lot you can do to customize it on the margin to make it more ideal, but still realistic.

And they studied this in so many interesting places. They’ve done studies with hospital cleaners, who adjust their jobs to create opportunities to care for patients and make their families feel more welcome in the hospital when everybody’s overlooking that and just focusing on the medical parts of care. And if you look at the job-crafting actions that people find most meaningful, the adjustments they make every day to their jobs, they’re not just tasks, they’re relationships.


DR. GRANT: It’s saying, there’s some people that I would really love to make a closer connection with, and I’m going to propose a side project with them. Or I’m going to structure my day so I get to spend a little bit more time interacting with them. Or, what’s amazing is how many people choose to craft their jobs in ways that help others. And it’s amazing that when given the freedom to do this kind of job-crafting and adjust their jobs in any way they want, people choose, naturally, in so many cases, to make modifications that benefit others, not just themselves.

[music: “Mountaintops In Caves” by Talkdemonic]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Adam Grant through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Mountaintops In Caves” by Talkdemonic]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, a conversation with the organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant. He passionately studies and practices generosity in organizational life — what he calls “microloans of time and talent.” He discerns when and how these can become transformative for people and the cultures of all kinds of workplaces. In his book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant describes three basic orientations of which we are all capable, and which influence whether organizations are joyful or toxic for human beings — the givers, the takers, and the matchers.

MS. TIPPETT: You also talk about just the value of small favors. And I think you were just pointing at that. The person who you can easily give a connection to. But you talk about — that making introductions can be acts of giving and you’ve also talked about things like knowledge-sharing, mentoring, helping, providing feedback. Some place, in another interview, you said “Sometimes it’s as simple as showing up early or staying a bit late to support your colleagues.” I think all of that kind of flesh-on-the-bones of this is really useful.

DR. GRANT: I think that people are really narrow typically in how they think about giving.


DR. GRANT: Most of us think about giving time and giving money. We don’t think as much about how we can make microloans of our knowledge, our skills, our connections, to other people.


DR. GRANT: And what’s interesting about this — the person who, I think, captured this best is Adam Rifkin, who, as you know, is a serial entrepreneur in the Bay Area. And Adam has coined this idea of a five-minute favor and has basically spent the last two decades of his career saying, “Look, a five-minute favor is just a small act that could add large value to other people’s lives.” And we could all afford to do a few more five-minute favors each week. And you should be willing to do five minutes for anyone, right, because it’s just such a small investment that could be meaningful. And what I love about that is that it’s a great reminder for, if you already are a giver, saying, “Look, I do not have to spend 42 hours with every person who asks.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right. [laughs]

DR. GRANT: But if you’re hoping to shift in the giving direction, it’s a really nice way to start, to say, “Look, yeah, a lot of acts of giving sound exhausting, and I’m worried about over-extending myself, but I could do a few five-minute favors this week. Sure.”

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you one other thing that you talk about — consolidating giving yields greater happiness. What is that act of consolidating? What does that look like?

DR. GRANT: Well, there are actually two kinds of consolidating. So one is the timing. Sonja Lyubomirsky led this terrific study where you’re randomly assigned to do five random acts of kindness per week. And you’re either asked to do them one per day each week, so you do one Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, et cetera. Or you do all five of those acts in one day each week. So you pick Tuesday as your giving day, and you knock out all five contributions that day. [laughs]

You do that every week for ten weeks. So I think I called them sprinkling if you spread them out, and chunking if you put them all together in one day. And whenever I poll people about this, about 80 percent of the audience thinks that the sprinklers are going to get happier, that a little bit of giving each day is good for your mood. And Sonja found the opposite, that only the chunkers, only the people who do all their giving in one day per week get any boost in their mood whatsoever. And that — really surprising …

MS. TIPPETT: How do you understand that? What’s that about?

DR. GRANT: Well, I was going to turn this back around to you. I mean, you have won a National Humanities medal. You do a lot for other people. How would you explain this?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Well, that’s not what — I’m the person asking the questions here. I’m in charge. [laughs]

DR. GRANT: OK, this is the mark of a giver. Only asking other people questions.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. [laughs]

DR. GRANT: No, but what would you say? How would you account for that?

MS. TIPPETT: Gosh, I don’t know. It’s really interesting. I feel like I’m on the spot here. I don’t want to give the wrong answer. Is …

DR. GRANT: No the great thing…

MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if this…

DR. GRANT: …is there isn’t a wrong answer.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Is the sprinkling — if the sprinkling is just another way to disperse. I mean if it becomes more intentional, that you’ve somehow — that you’ve more intentionally built it into your time. I don’t know.

DR. GRANT: So, I’m glad I asked, because that explanation has not been really considered, to my knowledge, yet. So this is a really fun example of a study that we’ve seen this effect of chunking as beneficial, but we don’t really know why. So I think the idea that becomes more intentional if you do it all in one day is really compelling.


DR. GRANT: And it’s related, actually, to one of the explanations that’s been popular so far, which is the idea that if you do it sort of a little bit each day, you sprinkle it out, it’s just — it becomes another chore on your to-do list.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right.

DR. GRANT: Whereas if you do it all in one day, this is now a meaningful contribution and it becomes more than just a drop in the bucket. You feel like you made a difference today. But I do think it goes against the grain of what most people do as far as giving is concerned.


DR. GRANT: And there’s a case to be made for saying, maybe you should have a giving Thursday. And try to line up a bunch of a contributions in that day each week. It’s something to look forward to, and it’s also a chance to know that you’ve got other days reserved to be productive or get your own things done.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I think for a lot of people that also might feel like it takes some of the shine off. You know what I mean? If you institutionalize it and maybe that’s wrong. Maybe that’s a wrong instinct.

DR. GRANT: Well, I don’t think it has to go so far as institutionalized, right? It’s not necessarily just about time. It’s also about how you give. So you could ask, are you a generalist or a specialist in the way that you help others?


DR. GRANT: And most people prefer the generalist approach. Whereas if you specialize in one or two forms of giving that you enjoy and excel at, then people respect that you have unique expertise to share. They actually come to you for what you like to give, which makes it more energizing than exhausting. And I think we can probably all do a better job stepping back and asking, “What are those one or two forms of giving that I get excited to do, that I do uniquely well, and how do I focus on those and let other people carry some of the others?”

MS. TIPPETT: That’s great. So givers inhabit the world together with what you call takers and matchers. As you say, this makes sense to me. Matchers follow the norm. So if they’re in the presence of givers — so givers and takers have impact because the tone they set, or the presence they set, will be matched. I mean, it is sobering, and I think again, we’ve all had this experience and I — tell me if this is correct. I think what you say is that it’s possible for one taker to dominate and ruin an organization or an experience. It takes more givers — it’s not possible for givers to redeem the whole in the same — in quite the same way.

DR. GRANT: Yeah. The way I like to put it is that one bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg does not make a dozen.


DR. GRANT: But it does — when you study this in teams, for example, one really selfish taker is enough to leave everybody else paranoid, making sure that they don’t get taken advantage of, and can really depress the generosity of a whole group. Whereas, you put one generous person in the group, and more often, people are like, “Great, you can do all my work,” instead of saying, “I’m now inspired to give, too.” And I think we have to be very careful about that bad-is-stronger-than-good effect, because it is possible that takers can really pollute a culture or a community.

MS. TIPPETT: So, is this one factor in why organizations are such tricky things? And especially big organizations, and as organization grow that you can have an organization full of wonderful, creative people, but you can have a culture that is toxic for those people, which they survive rather than, [laughs] rather than flourishing in.

DR. GRANT: Sadly, I think that’s a big part of the story.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: A lot of takers are skilled at kissing up and kicking down.


DR. GRANT: And they manage to convince leaders that they’re actually givers as part of their rise up the ladder. And then a lot of people think that power corrupts, but I think, if you look at the evidence on this, it’s more likely that power reveals — in the sense that if you’re a taker, you don’t have to pretend to be a giver once you’ve gained a lot of status and influence. Now you have the freedom to express your values. And so I think what happens is takers often rise by being fakers, and then you get to see their true colors once they’re in a top leadership position.

MS. TIPPETT: We should probably do a quick definition. I mean, how would you talk about this orientation of being a taker?

DR. GRANT: Well, I think of takers as people whose default is to try to get rather than give. So their goal is to come out ahead in every interaction. They want to claim work that’s interesting, visible, and important, leave the grunt responsibilities for everyone else, and they tend to feel entitled to the lion’s share of resources and credit. Even when they didn’t do the majority of the work.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve said that the question of how to turn takers into givers is, for you, one of the thorniest, kind of, unanswered questions you have. Is that still true?

DR. GRANT: Did I say that?

MS. TIPPETT: Somewhere, yeah.

DR. GRANT: Yes, then I totally endorse it. [laughs] No, it’s a huge problem. I think the good news is that very few people are takers in every walk of life.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: You do have sociopaths who are more likely to adopt that orientation in all their relationships, but for most people, think of, like, the biggest selfish jerk that you work with. And then, you know, watch that person [laughs] drive their kids to soccer practice.


DR. GRANT: There’s certain roles and relationships that bring out the givers in us, and I think that if we can observe the variations in people’s behavior, and understand what brings that out? What are the moments when they act more generous? We can try to tilt them, but that is not always a simple thing to do.

MS. TIPPETT: You have two daughters, is that right? Two daughters?

DR. GRANT: I do.


DR. GRANT: And a son.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, and a son. Congratulations.

DR. GRANT: Thank you.

MS. TIPPETT: One reason I think this is so helpful — the way you talk about being of service, being a giver, is it’s very integrated, it’s woven into the things you’re already doing. I mean, I know you’re talking about the potential, I think, everybody has to find ways to do this in the course of their days. I think especially when we think of service activities, and giving back — when we think of that as outside our usual day, especially when you become a parent, you just feel like you have a finite amount of energy and maybe more of that energy goes into that relationship.

DR. GRANT: Yeah. I mean, that’s certainly how I feel.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: And I always want to give to my family first and foremost. I think that we overlook, though, when we just stop there, the notion that in fact there are lots of ways to give that involve children and parenting.


DR. GRANT: So I think that it’s extremely important for children to see their parents giving, and not just giving to them, where they can take it for granted, but to see them helping other people. That’s actually part of how children learn values associated with generosity.


DR. GRANT: Is they see their parents doing things for other people. And one of the ways that I’ve — in small — in a very small sense that I’ve tried to bring that to light is, I brought our oldest daughter to review sessions that I do for students before final exams. It’s an optional session where I show up and try to answer any questions students have so that they’ve really internalized the material, and they feel prepared. But, also I — as I think about that, I think, yeah, I want her to know that it’s important to me not just when I talk about it, but when she sees me do it…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: …to give to my students.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you reiterate something I’ve heard from many different directions, from all kinds of people who think about parenting and children and what we nurture in children. And this is very frustrating thing that children don’t learn by listening. [laughs] They learn by observing.

DR. GRANT: If only, right?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah. But I wondered, you — when you were talking about your grandmother when we first began to speak, I was actually speaking with a psychologist recently — not on air, but just a person I knew — who talked about the fact that as we grow older, and I’m in my 50s, so I think I’m moving there. That you become more embodied as you grow older, or you become more settled in yourself. And that one reason maybe children are so drawn to grandparents and impressed by them is because they experience that fullness of presence. I mean, because, really, what — again, you were talking about your grandmother having this generosity of spirit, but it was just completely rooted — I mean, it was who she was, and it was what she did, and those things worked together. I don’t know, it’s somehow It occurred to me that this fact that children learn by observing, that this may be one reason grandparents make such an impression. But that’s…

DR. GRANT: That’s fascinating.

MS. TIPPETT: …off the top of my…

DR. GRANT: I never thought about that…

MS. TIPPETT: …head.

DR. GRANT: …before. I love it. It actually strikes me as really compelling. There’s a colleague of mine, Sue Ashford, who studies the self. And there’s a lot of evidence that, especially through teenage and college years — but even as people move into their 20s and 30s — that there’s a lot of instability in self-esteem. That people feel like they have worth only if they accomplish a certain thing…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: …or achieve a certain goal. And self-esteem is sort of staked in being able to prove yourself in different activities and domains. And as people get older, what Sue has observed, is they develop more of a sort of a calm, secure sense of self that’s not dependent on, how did today go?


DR. GRANT: [laughs] Like…


DR. GRANT: …I’m still a person of value, even if I had a really bad day.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, because you just have a longer arc of experience, right? You just know…

DR. GRANT: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: …because you’ve been there before. You know that today leads to tomorrow.

DR. GRANT: I think there’s so much to be said for that, and it may also help to explain there’s so much evidence suggesting that the elderly are the most generous among us.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: That when you look at proportions of income, when you look at time volunteering, when you look at how willing they are to stop and help someone who’s in need — basically, every decade you age, your odds of being generous go up and up.


DR. GRANT: And I think that’s a big part of it. There’s this sense of secure self, but there’s also this sort of greater desire to give back. Part of it is worrying about this horrible generation that’s coming up into the world.


DR. GRANT: “They really need some help!” — But I think that people become much more clear about the value that they can add and they don’t doubt themselves nearly as much as they age.

[music: “Sprouts in the Cracks in the Concrete” by Lullatone]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with organizational psychologist Adam Grant.

[music: “Sprouts in the Cracks in the Concrete” by Lullatone]

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve been writing recently about friendship at work. And how fewer Americans now than 30 years ago will say that they have a close friend at work, and fewer Americans say this than people in other countries.

DR. GRANT: I think it’s unfortunate, both from a happiness standpoint, because the evidence is overwhelming that people are more satisfied in jobs where they can make friends.

MS. TIPPETT: And you wrote, “Whether we bond at work is a personal decision, but it may involve less effort and vulnerability than we realize.”

DR. GRANT: Yeah, this is from one of my mentors, Jane Dutton, who studies high-quality connections in the workplace and finds that you don’t have to have a long-standing relationship to experience a genuine sense of connection. That even just a single interaction marked by mutual respect and trust is enough to energize both people. And I think if we thought about having more high-quality connections, more moments where we just treat each other with respect and trust, and we open up a little bit, it actually becomes the foundation for having meaningful interactions, even if we don’t call somebody a lifelong friend.

MS. TIPPETT: And, interestingly, you say that, in terms of how a workplace would generate this, is not about, like, having mixers, or having special events, [laughs] but meals, which is so obvious. I have to say, we moved our show into an independent production two years ago, and I think one of the most — I mean, we have a wonderful, open, hospitable space, but we have a kitchen table, right? And that the fact that some combination of us have lunch together every day. I cannot imagine this workplace without that. And I’ve never been in a workplace that had that before. But it’s so obvious, isn’t it? I mean [laughs] we know as human beings that relationships happen around meals.

DR. GRANT: It’s such a good example of a knowing-doing gap, where we all have this understanding in our heads, but we rarely put it into practice.

MS. TIPPETT: As you say, in all the rest of our lives, we know that that is where we gather and make a connection. And yet this place where we spend so much of our lives, we’ve separated it out.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. This is so fun. So, you also are a magician [laughs] and I don’t want to end here without asking how all of that intersects with all of this — all of these things we’ve been talking about — what you do, your passion.

DR. GRANT: Oh. I’m not sure it does, but if I had to try to draw a connection, I would say that one of the things that really sort of brought me to magic as a kid was I loved being surprised and entertained and seeing something that I thought was impossible look possible. And I think that a lot of the teaching and research I’ve tried to do since captured some of that element of surprise. That people think that generosity is a disadvantage, but it can also be an advantage. And also, my hope is, in teaching and sharing insights, to try to entertain people a little bit along the way. And I guess I tried to — as one of my mentors suggested, unleash a little bit of that inner magician in the classroom, which is great fun. Hopefully for not just me, but the students and audiences as well.

MS. TIPPETT: So, one of the ways you give is that you draw attention to other people’s work. You have a voice on some great platforms, and you use that. And, I was noticing, I guess this was a blog, was it, something, your website — you do, kind of, round-ups of research that other people have done that you think is interesting. Things that are fueling your imagination and your emerging questions. And in one of your round-ups, I think it was your round-up for 2014, there was some research about a question that is a good question to ask people. Which is “what did you enjoy doing at age 10?” Do you know what I’m talking about, this research?

DR. GRANT: Yeah, keep going.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, that “sometimes by looking back into the past you” — and this is psychological research — “you can get a glimpse of who you really are and what you loved before others started telling you what you should do.” And so here’s what I thought I would ask you. In the that New York Times piece in 2013, I mean, it did talk about you as being socially awkward, shy, introverted, didn’t like parties. [laughs]

DR. GRANT: Still don’t like parties. [laughs] But go on.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. But, so, here’s what I wanted to ask. What have you learned, through all this work you’ve done, what have you learned about what it means to be human that would have delighted the you, the Adam Grant, at age 10?

DR. GRANT: Oh, what a wonderful question. I think I probably would have been delighted to find out that the core of our humanity is stepping above and beyond our own narrow needs and concerns and goals.

And I guess what would have surprised my 10-year-old self is that, in the long run, the people who bring out that concern for others, who exercise that muscle of generosity regularly, actually achieve the greatest success in the long run, and also find the richest meaning in happiness. That would have probably pleased me and startled me a little bit, too.

MS. TIPPETT: One of the things that comes through in what’s written about you is this volume of your commitments. Your helpfulness to the point that would feel exhausting. It was, honestly, kind of exhausting for me to read about. [laughs] Noble.

DR. GRANT: I’m so sorry.

MS. TIPPETT: Noble, but exhausting. I wonder as you — you now have three children — as you get older, I mean, you’re also — you’re this very young tenured professor, but as you — as you get older do you find yourself shifting that energy and are you learning things about boundaries that you perhaps didn’t deal with in your early 20s?

DR. GRANT: Oh, yes. I think one of the lessons and effects of the New York Timesstory was it’s not necessarily a useful thing in your life to have an international newspaper tell random strangers that you like being helpful.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK.

DR. GRANT: I got thousands of emails from people…

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, my gosh.

DR. GRANT: …asking for the most bizarre variety of things that I wasn’t qualified to offer. And it really — as I guess, you know, it was easy to say yes to everything when I was only visible inside an ivory tower.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: And once my work became more salient to people, I started getting more requests and it was just more than I could handle individually. And I think what I learned to do was prioritize who I wanted to help. So it’s family first, students second, colleagues third, everybody else fourth.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GRANT: And friends fall somewhere in there, too, although they’re — that’s usually just like a conversation, right? Friends are less often asking for help, so I don’t know where to put them in the hierarchy. But, now when I get a request, I will ask, is this going to compromise my ability to be there for my family, and to deliver on my commitments to my students?


DR. GRANT: And it also means that there’s some colleagues who probably have more negative views of my concern for others than my students do. And yeah, that’s something I’ve had to become comfortable living with, to say, I didn’t become a professor to inspire other professors.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK.

DR. GRANT: I became a professor because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students, and that’s the group that matters most to me professionally. And so when my time is conflicted or scarce, I will always prioritize students first and foremost, professionally. And that’s been a really valuable experience to go through.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think that’s a really helpful kind of template — you know, guideline, for how other people in other configurations can create those boundaries for themselves.

DR. GRANT: I hope so. At minimum, it’s just a realization that you can’t be equally giving to everyone. And so, when you are going to face trade-offs, it’s useful to know what your priorities and principles are.

[music: “Lapland” by Ratatat]

MS. TIPPETT: Adam Grant is a professor of psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and he’s a regular contributor to The New York Times. He is the author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. His forthcoming book, Originals, will be out in February 2016.

[music: “Lapland” by Ratatat]

MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, you can sign up for our weekly email, Letter from Loring Park. In your inbox every Saturday morning — a curated list of the best of what we are reading and publishing, including writings by our columnists. This week, read our newest columnist Jane Gross’ essay “Longing to Connect and to Be Alone,” a reflection on the dilemma of religious holidays. Read her column and others at onbeing.org.

[music: “Cittàgazze” by Portico Quartet]

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