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Altruism in the Temple of Greed: Call with Adam Grant

--Bill Miller, on May 24, 2012

Our call this week is with Adam Grant, an associate professor and researcher at the Wharton School of Management at University of Pennsylvania. Adam has done formal research and writing in the areas of meaning, motivation, and pro-social behavior in the workplace, and has published substantially on the topic.

Adam was interviewed by Birju Pandya. (What follows is part reporting, part transcription, and part paraphrase.)

(Observation by Birju): Birju has worked with a number of colleagues who'd had Adam as a professor, and found them to be highly resonant with the values ServiceSpace is organized around.

BP: "Could you share a bit about why you became interested in motivation and meaning in the workplace?"

Adam started working in 2000 with Let's Go Publications (a student-run travel publication at Harvard). His initial job was to sell advertising, eventually becoming Director of Advertising and Sales. In hiring and managing a team of people, he was struck by the fact that, though the job took up the bulk of employee's waking hours, many found it generally lacking in meaning, and had difficulty staying engaged and motivated. As a manager, Adam found this an interesting challenge and began to explore ways to make work more meaningful. This ultimately led him to the field of organizational psychology.

BP: Can you share any specifics about how you garnered results relatively quickly?

AG: Gave two quick examples of experiences that he was better able to understand once he had the language of psychology to frame them with. One was simply motivating himself to say "no". In the early 2000s, many clients were struggling financially, yet still needed advertising. A number of clients would ask for things that were against company policy, yet Adam felt guilty about declining. The solution was to expand his perspective on who would be harmed by granting or denying requests. For example, the students who ran the publication depended upon the generated revenue for their tuition expense. Readers of the publication depended upon its continued availability for their travel needs. In fact, research indicates that always putting the client's needs first isn't always helpful or appropriate.

Another example was in learning the importance of building trusting relationships through a deeper understanding of client's needs than he'd originally been trained to gather. In an hour call for example, he'd spend 20 minutes simply learning about their lives, and the special needs they might have. When their major client was needing to cut their ad budget by half or more due to declining in-store sales (costing many jobs at Lets Go), Adam understood their situation well enough to modify the Lets Go publication in a way that tripled business with the client.

BP: How does this impact one's sense of purpose in the workplace? How does a "giver" avoid burnout in a context that doesn't necessarily support that?

AG: "One perspective that's sort of animating my thinking about this..." Adam recently gave a talk where he was introduced as the "guy who talks about altruism in the temple of greed". Adam found that a little misplaced, because he's been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who do care about things like social impact. In querying his students, he found that many wanted to have a positive impact on the world, but felt they needed to hide this because they mistakenly perceived their peers as not sharing such sentiments. (Known as "pluralistic ignorance" in social psychology. Leads groups to reinforce norms that no one really wants.)

Much of Adam's work is focused on how to get such "givers" to "come out of the closet". Accordingly, he has a great appreciation for "giftivism" and the kind of work that ServiceSpace is doing to legitimize this activity. "We need far more of that in our schools and workplaces and all of our social institutions. Let's come back to the idea that helping other people is a fundamental and universal value in every culture around the world. It shouldn't be something we have to hide."

BP: "How did you come across ServiceSpace and its work similar to your own?"

AG: (allusion to teenage girl following Justin Bieber) "I'm a huge fan." He first encountered SS one week when at least 25 people e-mailed him a link to Nipun's TED talk. The range of people who sent this was also quite striking. This included a number of students who were working on Wall Street - "That was quite a shock." Adam felt the talk was good for creating a common language and provoking thought toward embracing the idea of being giving and generous. This prompted him to read over the SS website in detail, and even engage students in finding the most interesting and representative stories on the topic.

BP: What might be a path that we all could take going forward, toward greater wellbeing as givers?

AG: "I could not even being to pretend to have the answer to that question. There are times when the more I study this topic, the less I know." Research tends to break big ideas down into small parts that can be controlled and studied. But sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When he and his colleagues break down some of these practices into simple constituent pieces for study, something is lost along the way. For example, there is some evidence that the combination of multiple altruistic acts has a more powerful effect on one's wellbeing than lone acts, spaced out in time. This seems to enhance our perception that we can really make a difference, and that the way you've chosen to give is appreciated and valued by others.

"It would not be hard to generate a long list of simple practices, but the question is a larger one - how do we give in ways that help others, enhance our own wellbeing, and don't necessarily require self-sacrifice? ... To some degree, it comes down to choosing ways to give that are resonant with one's own values. That's a hard question for any individual to answer for others."

Nipun Mehta: "You've done a lot of counter-intuitive research, yet it seems common sense when we actually see it. Can you speak about your insights on introverts and leadership? We tend to think that shy people are not really good leaders.

AG: This is a topic I'd really gotten into by accident, when I came across the work of Susan Cain. The common perception is that, while there are many things introverts can do well, leading is not one of them. ... Roughly 50% of Americans are introverts, while 96% of American leaders are extroverts. Introverts generally are not attracted to roles that require them to be the center of attention, so others tend to stereotype them as less likely to be a successful leader.
Yet there are many examples throughout history of highly successful introverted leaders. I think we do need more quiet leadership in our organizations and society. In researching this, Adam found that introverted leaders are more effective than extroverted leaders, when managing employees who are really responsible and take a lot of initiative. Extroverts get the best results with employees who are dutiful followers. Extroverts tend to be threatened by underlings who introduce new ideas, take initiative, and challenge the status quo. In studies, introverted leaders have been able to drive companies with proactive employees to 16% higher profits, at the company level.

"I've been thinking a lot about the connection between this and giving because my view and some of my data suggest that people who are generous with others also embody many of the qualities of introversion. So I think we are going to see much more support for quiet leadership."