Viewpoint: Good Guys Can Win at Work

Acting generously can actually be professionally powerful, as long as you don't turn yourself into a doormat

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

We all know successful people who are self-serving at work, who take more than they offer. In a cutthroat, competitive world, they tend to dominate givers, colleagues who happily contribute without necessarily expecting anything in return. According to conventional wisdom, being a giver means leaving ourselves vulnerable to exhaustion — and exploitation by takers. Offer a client a one-time discount, and you might get stuck with it for a decade. Volunteer to help colleagues solve problems, and you’ll end up burning the midnight oil, running out of time and energy to get your own work done. Advise and champion a high-potential mentee, and you could very well be passed over for your next promotion.

(MORE: Sheryl Sandberg: Why I Want Women to Lean In)

Recognizing the perils of generosity, many of us protect ourselves by waiting until we achieve success, and then start giving back professionally. Along the way, we reserve our giving for families, friends, charity, and volunteer activities outside the workplace. On the job, we’re careful to live our lives in the middle. We become matchers, striving to maintain an equal balance of giving and getting. A matcher is helpful enough to be a good person, but not so generous to be a sucker and sacrifice his or her own success.

But after studying these dynamics for the past decade, I’ve uncovered a paradox. Yes, there are a lot of givers who have low promotion and productivity rates, but givers also rise to the top. For example, studies show that although the engineers with the lowest productivity are givers, so are the engineers with the highest productivity. The same pattern emerges across a wide range of occupations. In medical school, the givers are the students with both the lowest grades and the highest grades. In my own research with hundreds of sales people, I’ve found that those who generate the lowest revenue are givers, as are those who generate the highest. The takers and matchers are more likely to land somewhere in between. And across many industries, from banking to manufacturing to retail, givers are most likely to earn promotions and ascend to leadership positions.

(MORE: Four Ways to Give Good Feedback)

In the course of my research, I explored why giving can be professionally powerful. By helping others without strings attached, givers build deeper and broader networks. Takers tend to burn bridges, and matchers often leave a transactional impression, as if they’re always keeping score, paying down a debt, or racking up a credit. Matchers also make the mistake of limiting their exchanges to people they’ve helped in the past or expect to help in the future. Givers, by contrast, have a habit of contributing to a wider range of people. And in collaboration, by sharing credit and volunteering for unpopular tasks, givers earn the respect of their colleagues without threatening them.

Being generous in the workplace is not without its dangers. Givers are prone to burnout when they fail to set clear boundaries on the time and energy that they invest in other people. They become pushovers when they fail to assert their own interests or make the mistake of trusting takers. Givers who avoid these traps are careful to contribute to others in ways that are not personally costly and they demonstrate flexibility in acting more like matchers when dealing with takers.

(MORE: How to Raise a Group’s IQ)

Organizations will always have a mix of these three basic styles. But there’s reason to believe that in the long run, the greatest success — and the richest meaning — will come to those who, instead of cutting other people down, pursue their personal ambitions in ways that lift others up. From a manager’s perspective, it would be wise to clear the path for more givers to succeed, so that they can bring others along as they climb to the top.

22 comments
KarlvanDecker
KarlvanDecker

When I started working, I thought that being a good worker - someone who really follows the rules and regulations set by the company - could help me be promoted to the position I am eying to have. Guess what? Being the GOOD GUY makes people, especially those shrewd team leaders, think that you are WEAK. They think they could manipulate you and just dump or terminate you for reasons that they obviously concocted. I was a good guy, and I was pressured by the team leaders to resign. And I am so angry that I let them win. I let the bad guys win. I am saying this because this article made me raise my brow. As I was reading it, the HOPE that is long gone is now flickering, glowing. growing. I hope that it can be true - that it IS true. That despite what I've been through, GOOD GUYs like me would win. Thank you for the article.

MarkoBrennan
MarkoBrennan

Good article. However, to get a measure of giving vs meanness in the workplace, we should filter the view. Eliminate the mean minded middle management bureaucrats, the people who will never reach the top, will never be CEOs or world changers or inventors or innovators. Remove these people from the view because they are not our role models. They are just part of the landscape, like potholes in the road they will always be there but they do not inspire us. But keep in view the coworkers who make a huge difference not by their title or financial importance but by their passion for the customer, the product, the company.

Now what do we have left: the CEOs, the mad inventors, the passionate 'extra mile' people, the executives and peers who actually put heart and soul into the job. These people, I believe, are genuinely giving, caring, trustworthy and they do have integrity. And they do succeed in the workplace.

Now look at the grinches you removed from view. Observe and rate their success - you'll find they're not moving up but often jealously guarding a 'senior' position they already have. Not many people wish them well, nor do they have upward pull from C level to nourish their difference-making potential. They're stuck. 

You may deeply resent some coworker today but if you stay nice, do not retaliate, and stay focused on being great, you will soon see that person in your rear view mirror

QriousAfrica
QriousAfrica

@OFMINC It'd give you a good name but not totally get you ahead because work environments usually look out for results other than 'niceness'

theirmind
theirmind

I was good, but not overly nice guys.

PapaFoote
PapaFoote

The Old Mountain Goat has known this: "..According to conventional wisdom, being a giver means leaving ourselves vulnerable to exhaustion — and exploitation by takers...", and in his 82 years, he knows it is "TRUTH" - regardless of "actions"!

CaesarNaxos
CaesarNaxos

@notAlbi “You'll never find a rainbow if you're looking down” and we are and stay optimist.....

bruderer
bruderer

Dr. Grant's model of workplace altruism works in a salaried prescreened environment  such as that of a University of Pennsylvania/Wharton School professor. Selflessly enabling the performance and careers of others is a good trait. But if you are hired on salary for 6 months in a sales role and you spend your opportunities enabling your colleagues, when it's time to go on straight commission or cut the team the good will you have sewn may not be ready to reap. This behavior is appropriate for a management role whose job is optimizing the performance of his team but for a new hire is presumptuous.  

PengKToh
PengKToh

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Helping a friend or relative can be more perilous because relations can sour if you refuse or reduce the amount next time.

etellurian
etellurian

@TIME @TIMEIdeas do innovative minds help create SE so people have a place to work with choices? Door mats know they're door mats? People?

nickbachan
nickbachan

@TIME @TIMEIdeas So what you're saying is that nice guys will still MOSTLY finish last. Well played, people who work at Time!

DelaFontanelle
DelaFontanelle

@ChKew @TIME @TIMEIdeas You're right. But a help must be bidirectonnal, with two senses. Every time you help someone, expect that if you need his help, he will be there. That takes in two senses.

CaesarNaxos
CaesarNaxos

@notAlbi “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.” And we hope with you P & S