Can Giving Be Good for Getting Ahead?

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Sharing and caring can be good for the soul, but what about the bottom line?

A recent New York Times Magazine piece explored this question, spotlighting a business professor who sees helping others as a path to the top. Adam Grant, the youngest tenured professor at Wharton, studies how generosity improves productivity, and uses his own early success and publishing record as a case in point.

In the story headlined, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” Susan Dominus writes:

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?

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Grant’s research began with a personal observation. In a student job, he worked harder selling ads for a travel guide series when he considered how the company’s success allowed a close colleague to stay employed to pay for college. When he saw his work as helpful and collaborative, he put more into it. Indeed, he soon sold the largest advertising package in the company’s history and was promoted at 19 to advertising director.

Grant used that insight about his own motivation to try to increase donations collected by a college call center that solicited money for scholarships.  He brought in one of the grateful award winners, and asked him to describe to the sales staff how much the financial support had mattered to him. A study he published on the center showed that following the talk with someone who benefited from their work, the revenue raised by the workers increased by 400 percent.

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Grant’s other research also supports the idea that most people are strongly motivated to help others and that tapping into this desire can help organizations meet important goals.  One publication, for example, found that doctors use 45% more soap or hand sanitizer in stations where signs emphasize that infection control helps patients, compared to those where signs focused on protecting the doctors’ own health.

But what happens when the same impulse is used by corporations to increase labor output? The justification, and the outcome, aren’t as warm and fuzzy. Notes Dominus:

Jerry Davis, a management professor who taught Grant at the University of Michigan and is generally a fan of his former student’s work, couldn’t help making a pointed critique about its inherent limits when they were on a panel together: “So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?”

It’s one thing to try to lure people into being kinder and more connected to protect their own health: studies show giving can fight loneliness, which has now been found to dramatically increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia and early death and appears to be as unhealthy as smoking. Being kind and caring may also reduce stress and inflammation, which can lead to numerous mental and physical disorders. And while starting on the path to doing good by wanting to feel well isn’t quite as pure as being motivated by genuine altruism, at least it can lead there.  But that’s a far cry from selling selflessness as a way to advance in business.

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All of us are already inundated daily with information that prods us to greater efficiency, which tends to place a premium on making money. Yet do we need to be sold on being kind as a way to allow us to compete better?

Motivating employees to improve the earnings of a big corporation by emphasizing their altruistic support for each other can lead exploitation, not compassion. Take, for example an example of Grant’s work noted by the Times in which Borders’ employees became more productive when they donated to an employee fund for those in need; seeing themselves as working to help each other rather than the faceless executives on top made the work appear — at least superficially — more meaningful. But, as Dominus notes, it’s a false sense of solidarity meant to hide an ugly reality.

Writes Dominus:

The study is uplifting and troubling at the same time: even Grant acknowledges the possibility of corporations playing off their employees’ generous impulses, as a sop to compensate for other failings — poor pay or demeaning work. (After all, if the employees at Borders had better benefits and pay, they might not have needed the emergency fund.)

It’s worth considering what factors tend to drive altruism and generosity of spirit. Most studies suggest that economic inequality — the gap between the rich and the rest — can greatly undermine generosity and social connection. Countries with the lowest levels of inequality tend to have the strongest social connections as well as higher rates of happiness and greater life expectancy.  The United States, which is currently experiencing the largest divide in income equality since the Great Depression, currently has a lower lower life expectancy than most other developed countries.

Inequality reduces generosity by making people less trusting and empathetic.  Although the high dollar amounts of donations given by the wealthy make headlines, as a proportion of their income, the rich give far less. Indeed, in 2011, the top 20% of Americans donated 1.3% of their income, on average— while the poorest 20% gave more than twice as much of their income, at 3.2%.

MORE: How Economic Inequality Is (Literally) Making Us Sick

Other studies have also found that the wealthy tend to be less generous, especially if they live in exclusive communities where they are rarely in contact with those in greater economic need. Rising inequality tends to further segregate the rich and poor, leading to even fewer chances to empathize and connect.

While helping each other is a primary, and laudable, human motivation, it’s better put to use in reducing inequality than in bolstering corporate profits, especially if the goal is improving health.  Giving is good, but we also need to consider exactly who benefits from our generous impulses.