Altruism the key to worker productivity and advancement?

The New York Times Sunday magazine (3/31/13) has an interesting long read by Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” focusing on research by Wharton (U. Penn) workplace organization psychologist Adam Grant who believes, originally based on personal experience and later supported by hard-headed quant studies that altruism both motivates workers to work harder and helps them to advance.

Snippet:

“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. In some sense, he has built a career in professional motivation by trying to unpack the puzzle of his own success. He has always helped; he has always been productive. How, he has wondered for most of his professional life, does the interplay of those two factors work for everyone else?

“Organizational psychology has long concerned itself with how to design work so that people will enjoy it and want to keep doing it. Traditionally the thinking has been that employers should appeal to workers’ more obvious forms of self-interest: financial incentives, yes, but also work that is inherently interesting or offers the possibility for career advancement. Grant’s research, which has generated broad interest in the study of relationships at work and will be published for the first time for a popular audience in his new book, “Give and Take,” starts with a premise that turns the thinking behind those theories on its head. The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

At a university call center, Grant tried reinforcing the ties to needy students to motivate callers and tested its effectiveness.  He found in 6 repeated tests that even a 5 minute speech by a scholarship recipient now working for Teach for America and testifying how the scholarship had changed his life, on average meant that even a month later fundraisers spent 2.5x as much time on the phone, nearly doubled the number of calls made per hour, and average caller brought in 5x as much money per week.  These results were achieved even though workers used the same script and consciously discounted the impact of the student’s talk.   He and others have found other productivity benefits from “gratitude journals” or “thank you notes.”

“Over the years, Grant has followed up that study with other experiments testing his theories about prosocial motivation — the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable payback. In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.”

Grant in his forthcoming book divides the world of workers “divides the world into three categories: givers, matchers and takers. Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders.”

Grant says that the key to successful givers is being strategic about doing nice things for others — what he calls the “5 minute favor” and asking if you can add unique value to the person requesting your time, and if not, strategically connecting the asker with other givers or with matchers for whom you have done past favors.  One can easily imagine that if one is strategic about doing favors for others, social capital theory would suggest that one builds up an informal “favor bank” that as the askers move up in the world, put you in a much stronger position to request favors of others.  It increases his pool of willing collaborators and puts him in a larger web of information flows in an era where expertise and knowledge is often distributed.  It is interesting that the motivation for Grant at least in being a giver is not at all about advancement — for him it is the key to doing what he can to conquer mortality.  He endorses William James’ view that  ‘The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.’

Grant also notes that takers succeed in the short-term but don’t do as well over the long-term perhaps because others use online social networks to punish takers [see e.g., Matthew Feinberg, Joey T. Cheng and Robb Willer, “Gossip as an Effective and Low-Cost Form of Punishment“, Behavioral and Brain Science 25(1), Feb 2012.]

He talks about his experience with the University of Michigan fundraising call center about 4 minutes into the following video. One person had a depressing sign on his desk saying “Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit.  You get a warm feeling but no one else notices.”:

I wonder whether his strategy is equally effective for all social strata. Jean Rhodes and others found that post-Katrina low SES survivors  who were more connected with others suffered mental health losses in short-term because all their friends were making demands of them [discussed towards bottom of this blog post].  The workers, like Adam Grant, himself may be less surrounded by needy individuals and more likely to be providing favors to students who will go on to higher stations in life, but very interesting food for thought…

Read Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

Read Adam Grant’s new book, “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” (April 2013)

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