Are we givers?

We have been taught since childhood that we must put ourselves first to succeed. Survival of the fittest, Darwin’s evolutionary mandate sits at the back of our consciousness. The precautionary warnings on airplanes instruct us to put our oxygen masks on first before helping others, insisting that looking after our own well-being before all else is primal necessity. As members of a generation that has been called “self-interested,” giving is an afterthought, charity something we do once we have met our own needs.

As a student in an undergraduate business program, I study economics, a discipline that upholds scarcity as a fundamental tenet. “There is not enough for everyone,” our supply and demand curves announce. We need markets because markets are distribution mechanisms, bringing resources to those who have the willingness-to-pay and the pocketbooks to afford them. According to economics, people act in their own self-interest.

It was with this “anti-altruism” priming that I entered the discussion about generosity in the workplace, loaded with skepticism. When you think of generosity, American business schools are perhaps the last place you imagine to be the nursery for brilliant thinkers on generosity and reciprocity. So when I heard my professor talk about one of her students who earned his Ph.D. here at the University of Michigan and went on to become the youngest tenured professor at Wharton – who had published a book about the benefits of giving – my curiosity was piqued.

Enter my intellectual superhero…

That student was Adam Grant, Wharton’s top-rated teacher for five straight years, who authored the New York Times best-selling book Give and Take. Ironically, I read this book on the subway to my internship at an investment bank.

But I admit, this book changed me. Melting my cynicism, Give and Take spoke to me, using the business school language that was most familiar. Yet, instead of arguing for self-interest and scarcity, Grant made the argument for generosity from an efficiency, organizational, and productivity standpoint. I saw more than a moral case for generosity, I saw the business necessity.

Despite the reality of scarcity, I believe that humans in their natural state want to help one another. But as a student, I’ve seen all too well how competing priorities, ambition, and self-interest can crowd out altruism when we become caught up in the frantic busyness of our everyday life.

The emotional benefits that an individual experiences when they act as givers are well-researched and intuitively understood – we can easily recall the warm feeling we receive from helping out a stranger or expressing gratitude to a loved one.

But these benefits of giving from an organizational standpoint amazed me:

  • Giving is predictive of higher profitability, productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.

  • Givers are better collaborators, problem solvers, and innovators.

From an individual standpoint, giving leads to:

So if giving is good for our organizations and for individuals, what stops us from giving?

In Adam Grant’s recent article in Fast Company, he says that people aren’t afraid to give, but rather…

“…They’re afraid to ask for help–they don’t want to look incompetent or embarrass themselves. In doing so, they make it difficult for people to know where, when, and how to contribute.”

It turns out people are usually willing to give, it’s the asking for help part that is so hard. Most opportunities to be a giver start with a request for help, so if people aren’t asking, the entire culture of generosity suffers.

I have experienced first-hand the fear of asking for help- as a student in a competitive academic program, asking for help seems to be synonymous with being weak. Raising my hand and admitting that I didn’t know felt like waving a big white flag of failure.

Return of my intellectual superhero…

Exactly one year after reading Give and Take on the sticky summer subway of New York, I came across Grant’s work on giving again… in the place I least expected it- a class of 500 business school freshmen that I help student teach.

I was introduced to Givitas, a knowledge collaboration platform with the purpose of routinizing generosity by reducing the stigma of asking for help. The platform is a practical implementation of Grant’s work on generosity, as he partnered with University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker and social scientist Cheryl Baker to create Givitas. Leveraging technology to create a virtual asking-and-giving community across the world, Givitas transcends the borders of buildings and geographies that had formerly constrained occasional, one-off favors. 

The idea is that if you make it incredibly easy for knowledge workers (or business school students, in my case) to make requests for help and assist each other, then they will do it incredibly often. This happened in the class of 500 students and is already working in corporations around the country.

Creating Givitas to be intentionally not addicting (or “sticky”) like Facebook and Instagram, the founders created the platform to help people make giving a core part of their identities and habits, without having to give up a ton of time. Since the platform is extremely easy to use, I watched my peers come alive with the ability to quickly and efficiently provide help for their peers. As the demo of the Givitas app began, the energy of the room lifted, a positive shift in the group’s mood felt physically.

If Givitas can make a room of business school students believe in the power of generosity- I can only imagine what is happening as Givitas is introduced to corporations, government agencies, and other large organizations. I believe that in order to create whole cultures of giving , we must lead by first engaging in the actions of asking and giving, and the changed attitudes will follow.

Economics and evolution tells us that we live to take. But the research in Give and Take and my experience with Givitas in the classroom inspired me to challenge these assumptions. A world in which giving is more beneficial than getting- now that’s an idea worth taking.