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Why Giving Could Help You Get Ahead at Work

This article is from our friends at LearnVest, a leading site for personal finance.

When it comes to getting ahead at the office, you’ve probably heard the adage, “Nice guys finish last.”

But Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and a researcher with a PhD in organizational psychology, says that workers who only look out for themselves are playing a short game.

Instead it’s those who lend a helping hand—even when they have nothing to gain—who can see long-term benefits, long after the favor has passed.

In his book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Grant turns the typical ideas of the best way to climb the career ladder on their head, by showing how “givers” prosper.

He shared with us the key differences between givers and takers—and how to be a smart giver, instead of a garden-variety pushover.

The Difference Between Givers and Takers

Drawing upon decades of social science research and his own studies, Grant divides workers into three categories: takers, matchers, and givers.

It’s pretty easy to identify who the takers are in any given situation. The person who takes all the credit for a group project? He’s a taker. And the person who stopped answering your emails once you did her a favor? Ditto.

More specifically, Grant describes takers in his book as believing, “the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts.” Takers can be territorial and pushy, and often feel like they need to get the upper hand or the best deal in every situation.

The second group, known as matchers, look out for their own interests as well but are also willing to lend a helping hand—as long as they know it will be repaid. For matchers, everything has to be squared away when it comes to doing favors, and they always know the score. The majority of workers fall into this category.

The third category, givers, help others without thinking of repayment, or whether they already owe the person a favor. They don’t necessarily have to be the people who donate all of their worldly possessions to charity—or even those who volunteer weekly at the local soup kitchen. Instead, they’ll cover shift hours, finish a presentation, or take notes at a meeting for a colleague. Simply put, Grant says givers act in the interest of others, “by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others.”

When Giving Goes Wrong

In the workplace, the problem with being a giver comes in when your desire to be generous to others gets in the way of your own success. Or as Grant succinctly puts it, “Givers tend to be the best performers—and the worst.”

For instance, out of 160 engineers he studied in California, those who were consistently said to have given more help than they received performed at the bottom of the pack. “Going out of their way to help others prevented them from getting their own work done,” he writes. However, the most productive engineers also gave more than they got.

And in a similar study of salespeople in North Carolina, the average giver had two and a half times less annual sales revenue than takers or matchers. However, Grant writes, “the top performers were givers, and they averaged 50% more annual revenue than the takers and matchers.”

So, what’s the difference between being a giver who wins, and one who loses?

5 Tips to Be an Intelligent Giver

If you want to take advantage of the benefits of giving in the office—but don’t want to be sucked in to doing your co-workers’ grunt work—it’s important to give intelligently. “Giving can be risky and self-sacrificing, but it can also be a powerful way to build relationships,” says Grant. Here, he shares his five tips for being a smart giver.

1. Follow the Five-Minute Rule

Much of Grant’s book focuses on one successful entrepreneur, Adam Rifkin, who co-founded a software startup that raised more than $50 million in funding. In addition to his startup success, Rifkin was also named Fortune’s best networker in 2011, which Grant attributes to his classic “giver” personality.

Grant says Rifkin’s giving style can be summed up by one simple rule: “You should be willing to do something that will take you five minutes or less for anybody.” While this time limit obviously needn’t be set in stone, it sets a good standard for a favor that could do a lot of good for someone else, but won’t distract you from your own aims.

Takers and matchers tend to snub connections with those they perceive to not be as useful, but this strategy can backfire down the road, when the intern they snubbed back in the day may wind up as a hotshot startup CEO only a few years later.

Think about the email requests that pile up in your inbox that never seem a priority. What would happen if you sat down one day and took a few minutes to respond to each and every one? Chances are, it wouldn’t take a full day—and that sort of giving could end up helping you down the line.

2. Focus on Adding High Value

“People think about giving as acting like Mother Teresa or Gandhi, but many successful givers look for other ways to add high value,” says Grant. By this, he means that there’s not one way to be a successful giver—and it often doesn’t look like the traditional act of charity. Instead, many of the most productive givers focus their energies on helping in the ways that they’re best at, rather than stretching themselves too thin by doing good in every way possible.

For instance, in his book, Grant says Rifkin’s far-spanning network allowed him to connect other aspiring entrepreneurs with those who might be able to give valuable advice. So for Rifkin, the most valuable giving occurred when he fostered these types of educational connections for others. In fact, he later decided to formalize his favors by founding 106 Miles, “a professional network with the social mission of educating entrepreneurial engineers through dialogue.”

Grant says Rifkin’s decision to focus his energies made his giving more valuable—and it strengthened his standing within that community. “You don’t see him volunteering at a soup kitchen, because he doesn’t add unique value there. In the long run, [volunteering] would be less beneficial to his professional goals,” says Grant.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

“Successful givers also ask for help a lot more,” says Grant. “It’s counterintuitive, and people think that to be a giver, you always have to be on the giving end of the exchange. But the difference between taking and receiving is that taking is using someone, and receiving is accepting a contribution.”

For instance, a taker might ask for a colleague’s help researching an upcoming project—then claim all of the credit for the project when it’s completed. On the other hand, a giver would ask for assistance, give his colleague appropriate credit, and then be sure to help out that person—or any other teammates—who were also preparing projects.

As long as you’re not keeping a running tally in your head on what you’ve done versus what your colleagues have done for you, it’s better to ask for and accept help when you need it.

4. Don’t Trust Everyone

If you’re giving more than you get, it’s easy for a lazy co-worker to take advantage of your generosity. “Givers who get in trouble trust everyone all the time,” says Grant.

If you notice that someone is consistently benefiting from your help or mentoring—but is stabbing you in the back when it comes to taking credit, or never seems to have the time to do a favor when you ask—consider acting more like a matcher. Instead of constantly giving to that person, and getting taken advantage of, hold that person accountable for lending you a hand as well from time to time.

In the favor world, too, it seems you’re wise to live by the notion of: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

5. Reach Out to Acquaintances

One of the most important benefits of giving is that it creates a wider, more diverse network of people whom you’ve helped in the past. One way to be a smart giver is to reach out to what Grant calls your “weak ties”: In other words, people who aren’t close friends, colleagues, or family members.

While stronger ties are often helpful (in fact, Grant says nearly 17% of people in a study conducted at Stanford heard about a job from a strong tie), they’re in limited supply—you only have a finite supply in your life, and they can only help you in so many ways.

On the other hand, the “weak ties” you’ve added to your network over the years may prove more helpful in, say, a job hunt: Almost 28% of people in the same study heard about a job from an acquaintance, or someone they see only rarely. “Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know about the same opportunities. Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network,” writes Grant.

“When it’s relevant or necessary, reach out to weak or dormant ties,” advises Grant. While it may feel uncomfortable at first, if you’ve established a history of giving (you’ve helped in the past or are offering to help them out now), they’re more likely to give to you.

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  • Photo of woman helping courtesy of Shutterstock.