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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.