“Is giving the secret to getting ahead?” — the science behind selfless generosity

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Generosity Adam Grant
This discussion of academic Adam Grant's research puts some science behind the generosity principle.

Generosity Adam GrantMatt Handal and Tim Klabunde are two of the biggest givers I know in the world of architectural, engineering and construction marketing. Their generosity and willingness to share is undeniable — especially since they share without expecting reward or return. Tim has taken his generosity forward as a master networker, creating the 46,000 plus member Design and Construction Network to what I believe is the largest specialized AEC LinkedIn community. (My Construction Marketing Ideas community, in comparison, has slightly fewer than 7,000 members). Matt, meanwhile, has spoken, guided and led in the explaining how, when you apply the scientific method to marketing, you can achieve surprising and highly effective results. (Both Tim and Matt have day jobs: Matt works as a marketer at Trauner Consulting Services, Inc. in Philadelphia, PA  and Tim is the director of marketing at Timmons Group with headquarters in Richmond, VA.)

Not surprisingly, I generally read anything Tim or Matt write with some extra interest. Today, Matt, in his Help Everybody Everyday blog, referenced a New York Times Magazine article profiling Wharton professor Adam Grant– a teaching and writing prodigy about business management and psychology. While the story linked here may disappear after a while from free access, the point Grant has discovered — and applies in his life — is the more you give, selflessly, the more you succeed. If you frame seemingly unpalatable activities with a generous and selfless objective, you’ll generally succeed far beyond respecting and focusing on your own needs and self-interest.

Take this example from the article (it is a lengthy quote, stretching the fair comment rules within copyright, but take the time to read the entire piece — and if you can, the source New York Times article (and comments):

The study of job design in the middle- and late-20th century focused on how to improve the drudge work of manufacturing: Grant is credited with reviving the field, shifting the thinking toward the more modern conditions of a service and knowledge economy. He first realized that his ideas about giving at work might actually yield quantifiable results when he was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he proposed a study set in a university fund-raising call center. Call centers, even on college campuses, are notoriously unsatisfying places to work. The job is repetitive and can be emotionally taxing, as callers absorb verbal abuse while also facing rejection (the rejection rate at that call center was about 93 percent).

The manager, Howard Heevner, did not have a lot of faith that Grant would be able to motivate his student-employees. He had already tried, in a previous job at a call center, the usual incentives — cash prizes, competitive games — and was generally unimpressed with the results. But Grant had a different idea. When he was an undergraduate at Harvard, he took a job selling advertisements for the travel guide series “Let’s Go,” but he was terrible at it. “I was a pushover,” he says in “Give and Take,” “losing revenues for the company and sacrificing my own commission.” Then he met another undergraduate whose job at “Let’s Go” was helping her pay her way through college. Suddenly the impact of his role became clear to him: without advertising revenues, the company could not make money, which in turn meant it couldn’t provide jobs to students who needed them. With that in mind, he was willing to make a harder sell, to take a tougher line on negotiations. “When I was representing the interests of students, I was willing to fight to protect them,” he writes. It would not be a mass-market psychology book if every anecdote did not have a dramatic ending: Grant eventually sold the largest advertising package in company history and less than a year later, at 19, was promoted to director of advertising sales, overseeing a budget of $1 million.

As a psychology major, Grant always hoped to do a study on the “Let’s Go” staff, in which the books’ editors and writers would meet with or read letters by people whose travels had been enhanced by their work. Would knowing how the books benefited others inspire them to work harder? Now, at the call center, Grant proposed a simple, low-cost experiment: given that one of the center’s primary purposes was funding scholarships, Grant brought in a student who had benefited from that fund-raising. The callers took a 10-minute break as the young man told them how much the scholarship had changed his life and how excited he now was to work as a teacher with Teach for America.

The results were surprising even to Grant. A month after the testimonial, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script. In a subsequent study, the revenues soared by more than 400 percent. Even simply showing the callers letters from grateful recipients was found to increase their fund-raising draws.

So . . . showing something beyond self-interest increases revenue in a call centre (where rejection rates are notoriously high) by 400 per cent — oh, can we take all the drudge jobs and turn them into gems just by showing the employers how they can help others more?

Some observers have poked holes in Grant’s work, and Grant himself is aware that the world has plenty of “matchers” (who look for a return on everything they give) and “takers”. He advocates that, unless you truly know the other person is a taker, to give — but efficiently. Efficient giving involves small chunks of individual attention in defined blocks of time — this results in students lining outside his office for his set office hours.

There are trade-offs and inconsistencies in the arguments. Grant, after all, is a tenured university professor with some fame to his name — and even when he worked at the call centre — he was working with people beyond the average level of success, achievement, motivation, intelligence and potential for further accomplishment. Some commenters also point out the not-so-hidden costs of his generosity — while he spends time with his family — and is fortunate to have a wife who will spend all the time necessary with their children — it is hard to really give that much to your family (especially your children) when you are working until 11 p.m. seven days a week.  And what about the power relationships — does giving more at work matter as much when you are a subordinate or the boss; or do you just end up exploited, a true pushover victim?

Nevertheless, as I look around my own community, business and family, I’m reminded that thoughtful giving without worrying about return is, indeed, perhaps the most powerful and unheralded marketing tool anyone can apply, with virtually no budget, and with truly effective and long-lasting results. Here are some first-hand examples:

I decide to spend hours of voluntary time on the Google help forums, graciously communicating and suggesting options for people who lose their AdSense account, because they fail to observe the program’s rules, or cheat.

After surviving two “account disabled” emails, I end up fending off a nutcase — and then become a Top Contributor (moderator) on the AdSense help forum. No financial rewards . . . but, wait, Google decides to formalize its Top Contributor program and invites all of us (about 500) on expense-paid visits to northern California. Now I have the credibility as an expert on the program, and the opportunity to meet and network with a group of truly interesting givers.

Deciding to forget about money, success, power, instead simply focusing on the character qualities of the women I sought to date.

Within two years, I married the woman I really had hoped all along to marry — We’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary in November.

Decide to deliver enough value to any advertiser in our company’s publications and websites to be able to guarantee that they can, on request, achieve 10 to 100 times their investment.

At first, this might seem to be a hard one to deliver. After all, advertising, especially in trade publications, can be expensive, and measuring success is an indirect process. So I decided to learn everything I could about architectural, engineering and construction marketing and then share it as much as possible, both with readers of this blog, and with clients. I can usually walk through the challenges for a business and offer some practical non-advertising solutions with a real payoff — so every advertiser, indeed, receives the value they deserve.

(This leads to an interesting generosity paradox. The advertisers who need the support the most, don’t take up the free consulting offer. The ones that have accepted it, are usually ones who are so successful that I can learn from them. And here is the greatest irony — these successful advertisers are also, competitively, the most intense givers, both within our industry and to the larger community. They naturally live the Adam Grant message.)

This is a lengthy posting, but you can take away some important lessons here. First, if you can, read the New York Times Magazine article about Adam Grant, and perhaps bookmark his name for further reading and follow-up. Second, look into Klabunde and Handal’s books on Amazon.com and also their blogs and websites for some more specific industry-focused advice about giving and communicating.

Finally, think about how you can contribute to others without worrying about your own immediate return, and you can share that positive karma with your employees, colleagues, clients and community. You may find your sales and productivity increase far more than you could ever expect otherwise.

And feel free to ask questions, either in the comments box, or by email to buckshon@constructionmarketingideas.com.

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