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When Kindness In The Workplace Is A Winning Strategy
kindness
Image credit: Kenny Louie
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

Review of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, by Adam M. Grant. Viking Press, 2013. ISBN-10: 0670026557

However much kindness might work in our personal lives, it has no place in the workplace, where only the ruthless survive. Right? Wrong, according to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist by training and the youngest professor to receive tenure at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business. Grant has written a book that documents the success of giving as a business strategy, compared to two other strategies, reciprocity and taking. As their names suggest, givers go out of their way to help others, even when it is not in their narrow self-interest. Reciprocators calibrate what they give to what they get. Takers care mostly about themselves and give only when it is expedient.

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This is familiar territory for those who think about social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. All theories of social evolution—including multilevel selection theory, inclusive fitness theory, evolutionary game theory, and selfish gene theory—focus on the eternal struggle between prosocial behavioral strategies that cause groups to function well and antisocial strategies that benefit individuals at the expense of their social partners. As someone who is steeped in this literature, I was interested to discover partial overlap with the literature cited by Grant. He doesn’t discuss the evolutionary fundamentals. He does discuss the game theory literature (e.g., the ultimatum game) and the basic psychological literature on altruism (e.g., the work of Daniel Batson), with which I am familiar. What made the book so interesting to me was the literature from organizational psychology and business management, with which I was largely unfamiliar. In addition, Grant is a good writer, combining the science with entertaining stories of real-world givers, reciprocators, and takers.

Why should giving be called a revolutionary approach to success? This isn’t just marketing hype. The dominant paradigm in business and economics treats individual self-interest as a grand explanatory principle. In Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged, the word “give” was banned from the vocabulary of John Galt’s utopian community. The general equilibrium model of neoclassical economics assumes that individuals are motivated entirely by self-regarding preferences. In game theory experiments, economists are baffled when participants fail to maximize their monetary payoffs. Not only is selfishness taken for granted, but it is treated as good for the economy as a whole.

My end of the literature has also contributed to the impression that altruism doesn’t exist or at best is a fragile flower. For decades, the advantage of selfishness within groups was portrayed as stronger than the advantage of behaving for the good of one’s group. Selfish gene theory and inclusive fitness theory portray giving as a flavor of selfishness. A long tradition of philosophical thought and psychological research questions whether altruism even exists as a psychological motive.

Against this background, giving appears not only stupid, but even perverse, and the idea that it can be a successful business strategy is indeed revolutionary. Grant provides numerous examples of people who were ashamed of their giving impulses as something that needed to be suppressed and concealed in their business lives. Some even spoke only under the condition of anonymity!

Grant establishes a number of important points about giving as a successful business strategy that I would like to frame in terms of multilevel selection theory for an evolutionary audience, and also to introduce the theory to those in the business world who are not already familiar with it.

1) Giving results in huge group-level benefits. The evolution of group-advantageous traits depends upon the ratio of group-level benefits to individual-level costs. Grant shows that in a business environment, the group-level benefits of being generous with one’s time and expertise can be huge, especially for entrepreneurial businesses where so much hinges on making the right connections.

2) Exploitation is less of a problem than it is often made out to be. Giving can be costly over the short term and there is a danger of losing out in competition with those that one helps. Grant acknowledges the hazards of givers becoming “chumps” and “doormats”, but he also shows how successful givers protect themselves against takers. In most business environments, people interact repeatedly and acquire reputations on the basis of their giving and taking behaviors, which stacks the deck in favor of prosociality. With huge group-level benefits and manageable individual-level costs, giving is far from being a fragile flower. It is a powerful engine of business productivity.

3) We are wired for giving, reciprocity, and taking. We have been employing these social strategies for as long as we have been a species. They would not persist if they were not all advantageous in at least some contexts. The human mind is designed to employ all three options. The entirely selfish Homo economicus has dominated the imagination of economists and business people for too long and should be permanently laid to rest. Giving is an essential part of the human behavioral repertoire.

4) Giving is both temperamental and phenotypically plastic. Some of the people profiled by Grant appear to be born givers or takers, but this is too simple. Even though nearly all human behavioral traits are genetically heritable, which means that we might be predisposed to one strategy or another, most of us are also capable of employing a variety of strategies as conditions warrant. Hence, “born” givers learn to suppress their inclinations as best they can in current business environments. By the same token, “born” takers can learn to become givers and might even be pleasantly surprised to discover that giving can become “second nature” for them.

5) Giving can be reinforced by norms and institutional arrangements. We are such a flexible species that we can conform to almost any norm enforced by rewards and punishments–even flying jumbo jets into the sides of skyscrapers. Grant demonstrates that giving can be a successful business strategy even when selfishness is the prevailing norm. How much productivity will be unleashed when giving becomes the prevailing norm?

As president of the Evolution Institute, I have learned a lot about the need for economics to be reformulated from an evolutionary perspective. More recently, I have turned my attention to business in collaboration with my colleagues Jonathan Haidt and Geoffrey Miller at New York University’s Stern School of Business. My growing experience is in accord with Grant’s account in Give and Take. Prosocial strategies are as important for business groups as for any other kind of group—perhaps even more so, given the intensity of between-group competition. The numbers show that generous giving and other forms of prosociality are successful business strategies. In fact, the tougher the economic times, the greater their performance advantage. Yet, highly prosocial people and business models are made to appear like “freaks” by the current economic and business paradigm, as one prominent businessman put it to me. Give and Take goes a long way toward establishing the “revolutionary” idea of giving as the new business norm.

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2 Comments

  1. Philip Spohn says:

    I’ve heard the following words more than once from Dave Packard, “Treat your suppliers as partners, your customers as friends, and your employees as family.” That was something he wanted the exceptionally competent “field sales organization”(which he had personally assembled) in particular to practice. If they knew of a better solution or product, he wanted them to help their customers move in that direction. That was just one of Dave and Bill Hewlett’s principles of generosity.

  2. Juan Alfonso del Busto says:

    Thank you for the tip!
    As both a pre-doctorate Behavioral Ecology student and a Sales and Marketing manager, this is the kind of stuff I need, and not the repetitive and opportunist “guru” best-seller business booklets that fill the shelves in the airport newstands.
    My interest in broad-sense reciprocity in a context of hyerarchical social nets, reputation and perceived statuses (for both group an individuals) is leading me to explore the power of positive reciprocity.
    A careless and selfish act can lead to a spiral of destruction and negative reciprocity, but a costly act of giving can lead to a spiral of positive reciprocity, trust and net efficiency.
    I am going to give a speech about reciprocity to my sales people in a few days, may be I will be able to extract some insights from this book.
    Thank you,