Giving help and advice is the best way to build new business, in my experience. This is true in how you network, make initial contact with prospective clients, and conduct sales calls. But there's substantial research that indicates that helping others can be a great way to succeed overall in both business and life.
Adam Grant, Wharton professor and organizational psychology expert, explores the business impact of giving in his popular book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He describes three kinds of "reciprocity styles" that define how people tend to interact with others—takers, matchers, and givers.
Takers are those who put their own needs ahead of others. They are scarcity thinkers who see limited opportunities, meaning there must be winners and losers. Winning means bettering others, both inside and outside the firm. They fuel the growing (and mostly inaccurate) perception that business leaders succeed at the expense of others.
Matchers are the most common style in the workplace. These individuals seek a balance of giving and getting. They operate on the principle of fairness, believing relationships should be governed by an equal exchange of favors. Fairness, of course, is an innate human value—even young children recognize it. So it's no surprise that most people gravitate to this style of interaction.
Givers occupy the smallest group in business. They are motivated to help others regardless of whether that act will be reciprocated. While takers may offer help strategically when they see personal benefit that outweighs the cost, givers feel rewarded simply by giving. But they ultimately calculate the value of their giving not in how it makes them feel, but in how much others are benefited by their generosity.
The Best and Worst Performers
All three types of people can succeed in business. Grant examined performance in three professional contexts: engineering, medicine, and sales. He found that takers and matchers generally fell somewhere in the middle. The poorest performers were predominantly givers. They apparently helped others at the sacrifice of their own success. So which reciprocity style was prominent among the top performers? Surprisingly, it was givers again.
What determines whether givers sink to the bottom or rise to the top? Grant offered this explanation: "I find that failed givers were too altruistic: they sacrifice themselves to the point of burning out and allowing others to use them. Successful givers put other people first most of the time, but they focus on helping in ways that are not at odds with their own interests. For example, it turns out that successful givers specialize in five-minute favors, looking for ways of offering high benefit to others at low personal cost. They ask people they mentor to 'pay it forward,' expanding their giving to a broader audience, and are more cautious when dealing with takers."
How Givers Succeed
Successful givers carefully allocate their time and energy in ways that enable them to fulfill their basic responsibilities, while going the extra mile to help others. Which reciprocity style best fits your interactions with others? If you are a giver, or seek to become one, below are some tips to consider:
Give help freely. Most professionals who invest time in helping others look for the potential payback. I'm prone to do the same at times. For example, the opportunity to help an executive decision maker is more likely to attract my attention than helping a lower-level employee. But Grant found that successful givers were less discriminate in who they helped—simply helping another was reward enough. But their kindness often produced unanticipated benefits, both for the giver and for others. Giving can multiply opportunity and success.
But maintain your professional responsibilities. This is where failed givers often stumbled. Their giving interfered with doing their job well. Grant cited one study that found that engineers with the lowest productivity and most errors tended to be those who did far more favors for their colleagues than they received. Engineers who balanced giving and taking were generally average performers. But the top performers managed to give freely without compromising their job responsibilities.
Be judicious in how you spend your time. As mentioned above, this is the critical trait of successful givers. They find ways to give time to others without shortchanging their other responsibilities. Following are some ways to accomplish this, coming both from Grant's book and my own experience:
- Set "office hours." Givers are inclined to embrace an open-door policy, welcoming all comers who seek their help. But this can significantly reduce your productivity because of the many interruptions. A better option is to block your time for specific activities. For example, you might set aside at least a few mornings each week to focus on project work, limiting interruptions to only those that are time sensitive. Then open your doors in the afternoon to offer help to those who might seek it.
- Make referrals. Grant found that successful givers often referred people to others who could better help them. These were frequently other givers who welcomed the chance to share their insights. Referring is not just a diversionary tactic, but a genuine effort to match the person seeking help with the best resource. If that person is outside the firm, an introduction may be in order. Of course, givers will typically seek to reciprocate those to whom they made referrals, whether or not that is expected.
- Focus on professional development. Successful givers don't just share their time and advice, they make investments in others. This involves helping others grow their own skills and insights. So rather than simply answering a question, you might respond with questions designed to help the person come to the answer on their own. Or you might show someone how to do something rather than merely tell them. This is akin to the old proverb: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime." Failed givers often help in ways that promote dependency, where others continue to seek their help without learning how to help themselves.
- Compile helpful resources to share with others. As I wrote previously ("Why You Should Be Hoarding Content"), there are many advantages in building a library of helpful information and advice. Since I routinely collect and produce content for my business, I am able to share this with others who request help with a minimum investment of my time. And since this content expands on what we may have talked about previously, and can be readily shared with still others, it's a great way for me to broaden the reach of my help. You can do the same—when you discover good content, consider who you might share it with. And file it away for future sharing opportunities.