Adam Grant is the youngest tenured and highest rated professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the excellent book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.
I spoke with Adam about how nice guys finish last and first, what really leads to expertise and how empathy can beat objectivity, among other things.
The big idea is that there’s three fundamental styles of interaction that exist in most industries and most countries around the world. I call them “Giver,” “Taker,” and “Matcher.” The Takers are basically people who try to get as much as possible from other people and contribute as little as they can in return. The Givers are the people who actually really tend to enjoy helping others. They’re quite content to give more than they receive. Then, the Matchers are most of us. The Matchers are basically people who try to maintain an even balance of give and take to have fair exchanges, I help you, you help me. What I find across various industries, and various studies is the Givers are most likely to end up at the bottom. That’s primarily because they end up putting other people first in ways that either burn them out, or will allow them to get taken advantage of and exploited by Takers. Then I looked at the other end of the spectrum and said if Givers are at the bottom, who’s at the top? Actually, I was really surprised to discover, it’s the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom, but also at the top of most success metrics.
I’m really borrowing Benjamin Bloom’s groundbreaking research here when he interviewed people who are world-class at an activity that requires deep expertise. Swimmers, tennis players who are ranked in the top of the world, mathematicians and scientists, musicians, very, very best in class. Actually, his team went back and traced their early histories, interviewed their families, and their friends, and their neighbors, and them and found that rarely were they elite at the start. Like the Olympic swimmers actually didn’t win their earliest swimming competitions by and large. The musicians who achieved greatness typically did not appear to be prodigies early on. Of course we know that a lot of them did deliberate practice for 10,000 or many more hours. That’s where Anders Ericsson left off is where my interest picks up, which is what motivates somebody to do that in the first place? Why would somebody invest deliberate practice in something? It turns out that actually most of these world-class performers had a first coach, or a first teacher, who made the activity fun. If you excel at something, and you experience mastery, it often does make it more fun and enjoyable to do it. We’ve overlooked the reverse effect, which is that often interest precedes the development of talent. It’s having a coach or teacher who really makes something exciting to be involved in that leads you to often put in the practice necessary to become an expert at it.
There is a great study of radiologists by Turner and colleagues showing that when radiologists just saw a photo of the patient whose x-ray they were about to scan, they empathized more with the person, seeing that person as more of a human being as opposed to just an x-ray. As a result, they wrote longer reports, and they had greater diagnostic accuracy, significantly. I think the coolest part of the study was half of the radiologists got the photo first, they did the x-ray evaluation, and then three months later they got to evaluate it again. The photo was gone. They had forgotten it. They actually got worse. The other half of the radiologists had the reverse. They got to start out with no photo. They made their average diagnoses. Three months later they got the same x-ray again to scan. This time there was a photo of the patient. Now their effort and their accuracy go up. I think that one of the great takeaways of that study is we’ve often overlooked the power of empathy in the workplace. I think a lot of us do jobs that benefit other people, but sort of lose sight of the human impact because it’s not front and center of how the work is set up.
One would be “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman. I think of this as like the tour de force of how leaders operate like Givers. I think this is a fantastic take on how the higher you rise, the more limited your success will be if you are a Taker because you can’t multiply yourself. You can only basically get things done through your own efforts. She covers it in a really powerful way, that leaders develop the best in others as opposed to sucking others dry. The second book that I think is really relevant is “To Sell is Human,” of course, by Dan Pink. I think Dan looks at some complementary themes around attunement to others and selling as actually an act of serving and benefiting others. I love “Quiet” by Susan Cain. I think as far as the power of communication piece goes, I think she looks at a lot of really important patterns around how introverts and the quieter among us actually are not at the disadvantage that many people seem, or at least sometimes underestimate the strength of seeing the quieter, more humble individual. There are two for those who want to think about building a network. One is “The Hidden Power of Social Networks” by Rob Cross and Andrew Parker which looks at how you map the networks in your organization and try to develop yours more effectively. William Bakers’ book “Achieving Success Through Social Capital” is a really nice book about how networking is not a dirty word, at least it needn’t be. There’s lots of ways that contributing to others can actually enrich the relationships that you develop.
One of my personal favorites is probably Adam Rifkin’s idea of the “Five-Minute Favor” (if you can do something for someone that will take less than five minutes, just do it.) A lot of people look at the idea of helping others and say, “Gosh, that’s going to be time consuming, or exhausting, or put me at risk of being exploited.” I think that Adam’s idea sort of enables us to a sense of, “What if I just took a couple minutes every day to try to help someone in a way that it’s sort of a small commitment to me, but could be of large benefit to them?”
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