Editor’s Note: This is an expanded Web version of the interview conducted with Adam Grant.
I met best-selling author Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia as he raced between book tour appointments. At 31, he’s also the youngest tenured professor on the Wharton faculty — and brimming with groundbreaking research in his chosen field: organizational psychology. I sat down with Grant to learn how the principles in his cutting-edge book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, can apply to the education sector.
Ari Pinkus: In your book, you write about the three categories we fall into: givers, takers, and matchers. Why should people want to be givers in their lives as opposed to takers or matchers?
Adam Grant: I wouldn’t necessarily assume anyone wants to be a giver as opposed to a taker or a matcher. I think there are pros and cons to each style. Many people assume that the givers, the people who help with no strings attached, are just the worst off when it comes to their careers because they’re burning themselves out or they’re becoming doormats at the hands of takers who are just trying to get as much as possible from others. And that is true. So the good guys do finish last. The givers are typically the worst performers if you look at data from engineers, medical students, and salespeople; that’s a consistent pattern.
But what’s overlooked is the other side of that equation, which is that although some givers finish last, the rest finish first. The most productive and effective people in engineering, medicine, and sales are also the helpful and generous among us. For these people who share knowledge, make introductions, and provide mentoring, they manage to succeed in ways that lift other people up instead of cutting them down. I think that’s a pretty exciting way to achieve success that’s marked with meaning and happiness in ways that perhaps solo success sometimes isn’t.
Pinkus: Are there common backgrounds and demographic characteristics givers have?
Grant: If you look at some of the studies of who gives and who doesn’t, you can see that parenting is really important. Controlling parents, who deprive their children of freedom, are more likely to turn their children into takers who literally take freedom from other people. Another interesting pattern: the more siblings you have, the more giving you tend to do. As David Winter from the University of Michigan puts it, being an older sibling is a proxy for responsibility training… you end up doing a lot of sharing and caring and cooking and cleaning, and those are helping and giving kinds of activities.
As I recently argued in a New York Times piece, there’s some evidence that those who grow up to be givers are more likely to have sisters than brothers, which I think is fascinating. We can debate about the reasons for that, and get into controversy quite quickly, but it does seem that female family members have a habit of tilting men toward generosity.
Pinkus: Let’s talk about education. What makes a good teacher?
Grant: In my mind, one of the first qualities is passion for the subject matter to the point where it’s contagious or infectious. Second is a deep and broad knowledge base so that you can teach students a lot about one thing, but you can also teach them about many different things. Third, and perhaps most importantly given what I study, is caring about students. A great teacher is someone who puts students’ best interests first, sees more potential in them than they see in themselves, and strives to help them learn and succeed.
Pinkus: How can teachers see a student who’s been a challenge for them to one who has potential?
Grant: I think the first step is looking for where the potential lies, as it may not be in the most obvious or immediate form. One of the most useful and inspiring ways to identify strengths is through the Reflected Best Self Exercise. Students ask people in their lives (usually 15 or 20) to write a story about them at a time when they were at their best. As a teacher, you could have your students seek feedback from their families and friends about who they are when they’re at their best. Then the students review all the feedback and compose a portrait about the common strengths, some of which are surprising. People notice things that students didn’t know were there. For a teacher, that becomes feedback: you see the portraits that your students’ friends and relatives have created, and those are cues about potential.
The other step is to understand what students’ goals are. We sometimes overlook the fact that even the most troubled students have hopes and dreams. In fact, Daphna Oyserman and Hazel Markus found that juvenile delinquents had the same hopes and dreams as their high-achieving peers. What the juvenile delinquents lacked was fear about what would happen if they failed or did something wrong. They didn’t worry as much about unemployment and social disapproval, but they had the same dreams and hopes and aspirations. So I would say that if you can identify students’ goals, it’s possible to reach students where they want to go on their terms.
Pinkus: Why do teachers who are givers focus on gritty students? And how do they help students cultivate grit?
Grant: Angela Duckworth describes grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. I see grit as a marker of how close to your potential or talent level you’re going to come. The more you focus and engage in deliberate practice, the greater the growth of your skills, your knowledge base, and your ability to be successful. Many givers feel that if they invest in gritty people, there will be a greater return on their investment: those students, those athletes, and those employees will go further. At the same time, givers also strive to cultivate grit by encouraging students to identify important goals and exercise discipline and perseverance in pursuit of those goals.
Pinkus: You write that givers use powerless communication effectively. Could you define this communication, and describe how you use it yourself in the classroom?
Grant: It’s hard to define it without trying to do it which is never easy. I borrowed this concept from Alison Fragale’s research. She defines powerful communication as speaking authoritatively, confidently, and dominantly—being the quintessential expert. Powerless communication, by contrast, involves being a little bit more hesitant and uncertain, revealing your vulnerabilities and your weaknesses (not only your talents and strengths), admitting when you don’t know the answers, and being receptive to the advice of other people.
I’ve found over the years that I am often more comfortable in a powerless speaking mode than a powerful mode. I guess I tell many more embarrassing stories than success stories from my own life. I think it’s really important to show students that you can still accomplish your goals without being perfect or successful all the time, and that learning through failure and being willing to admit, carefully examine, and reflect upon your mistakes is just an invaluable skill for work and life. I think the other reason that it proves really useful is that when you’re standing up on a podium and there’s this hierarchical relationship between you and your students, it really humanizes the relationship: they can see, “Oh wait, this isn’t just a professor; this is a person.” I’ve found that it helps me connect with them. I’m always amazed when I tell a particularly embarrassing story, there are a few students who will come up and tell me they had something similar happen, and then I don’t feel quite so terrible about it, and apparently they don’t either.
Pinkus: It would seem to be a good idea to teach this kind of communication style to students at a younger age. How would we change the way we teach students to communicate?
Grant: I won’t be the first to say this, but I would love to spend more time teaching students how to ask questions as opposed to give answers. I might engage students to write tests, instead of just taking them. It’s a whole different mode of thinking to put people in the mindset of inquiry as opposed to advocacy. I think it would also be really nice if we could find ways of evaluating people on their listening skills and on their ability to help other people speak, as opposed to assessing their capacity to spit out verbatim responses.
Pinkus: How do you recognize a giver in your classroom?
Grant: In my classroom, the givers are students who go out of their way to apply the knowledge to help other people. For example, I think of students who come to office hours and ask for advice on how to share the principles with their family members, friends, and members of their extracurricular clubs.
Another sign is empathy and compassion toward peers. I run an exercise in class every year invented by Wayne Baker at the University of Michigan and Cheryl Baker at Humax Networks called the reciprocity ring, where all of the students are invited to make a request for help. Everybody else in the class tries to help fulfill the request, and you see that some of the students … will go to great lengths in reaching out to their family members and their friends in an effort to make a difference.
Pinkus: How do you encourage students to be givers in their lives?
Grant: I don’t know that it’s my job to encourage students to be givers. That being said, I’ve been struck by the number of students who hold giver values, but are held back by the misconception that you have to be a taker to be successful. I’ve had a lot of students say I really want to help others, so I’m going to work for 35 years in a job that’s going to make me the most money and get me the most power, and then I can start to give back. In that situation, I feel like my responsibility is to ask whether that may be backward. My data show that instead of succeeding first and giving back later, it’s often the people who give first who set themselves up for succeeding later… If students can see that, it can be a bit liberating in terms of saying, “Maybe I can do that, too.”
Pinkus: What are the pitfalls of being a giver?
Grant: One major risk is being exploited by takers — people who are willing to use you and just capitalize on your generosity to the point where you run out of resources or time. The other is burnout: some givers are so selfless and altruistic that they put other people first all the time, and they have no energy left over to be effective and productive at their jobs.
Pinkus: Why do educators seem particularly subject to these problems?
Grant: Evidence shows that there are many causes, from red tape and bureaucracy to angry parents to children who won’t cooperate, but from my angle, one of the greatest causes of teacher burnout is not seeing the difference that you make in the long-run.
A few years ago, Beth Campbell Bush and I published a study of teacher burnout. We found that the teachers who had stressful experiences on a regular basis were only prone to burnout when they didn’t feel like they were making a difference. When they felt that their jobs were really helping their students, they were able to cope with all of the frustrations and the difficulties in their daily work. One of the challenges is that the impact of teaching often isn’t realized until many years after students have left your classroom — eventually, an idea crystalizes, a behavior changes, or they choose a career based on some advice or perspective that you might have shared.
I’ve recommended that we launch a No Alumni Left Behind act, where schools invite their alumni back — not just give to the school financially, but to share their experiences and help teachers see the impact that they personally have had, or recognize the potential for impact by seeing what their colleagues have been able to contribute.
Pinkus: You talk about a support network being an antidote to burnout. How can teachers build a support network to help themselves? What role do leaders have here?
Grant: How do you build a support network for yourself? One major step is through giving. The evidence is really clear that most people are matchers: they believe that what goes around should come around, and strive to follow the norm of reciprocity. That means that if you’ve been really generous with them, when you need them, they will be there for you.
It’s no easy task for school leaders to build a support network. Research suggests that formal mentoring programs rarely do much good, in part because a relationship in which you rely on people for emotional support, advice, guidance, and resources tends to be something that needs to evolve genuinely based on a natural authentic connection. It’s tough to say, “Today I am your mentor and I will be helping you,” and immediately have trust.
That said, I would encourage school leaders to legitimize help seeking. Many teachers are reluctant to seek help — they don’t want to appear vulnerable or helpless, and they don’t want to burden others. But if you’re unwilling to seek help, that’s a great recipe for burnout. And you’re thwarting the potential givers in your life from knowing what you need and how they can be of support to you.
School leaders can play a huge role in this. I would love to see more school leaders asking for help themselves: admit when they don’t know the answers, and show it’s acceptable to seek out help, that it’s safe, and even encouraged.
I would also be thrilled to see more school leaders create marketplaces for people to seek help. For example, there’s a company called Appletree Answers in Delaware that runs a call center. They had turnover at a range of 98 percent annually. CEO John Ratliff was getting together with a group of people to brainstorm about how to reduce the turnover rate, and one of the people suggested creating an internal version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They called it the Dream On program: employees could pose any dream they wanted, and there was a committee of people at Appletree who would try to make it happen. They got all sorts of really interesting requests, from a woman who wanted to help her sick husband meet his favorite football players to a man who wanted to take his daughter to a birthday party and go behind the scenes at the circus. Not only did [the dream committee] make them happen, but turnover dropped to around 33 percent within the six months after they instituted this program because they made it acceptable for employees to ask for help. It created a lot more authenticity and empathy in their everyday relationships. I don’t know if every school should have something like that, but it’s a really interesting model.
Pinkus: What do you think school leaders can do to protect giving teachers from becoming too selfless?
Grant: Setting boundaries is really critical. Teachers need ways of saying, “I have license to decide which requests I will grant and which ones I won’t.” There are organizations that have created quiet time windows, with no interruptions, so that people can make progress on their individual goals.
I also think that schools can take some steps to make sure teachers have the support they need. This would be less about providing a support network and more about providing structural support. Dave Hofmann, Zhike Lei, and I conducted a study in hospitals, where there was a nurse preceptor staffed on each unit with the responsibility of helping nurses. Nurses were more likely to seek help. What would happen if schools hired rotating people in giving mode, whose job was to, in a sense, care for the caregivers?
Pinkus: Do you think there’s a way to evaluate teachers and students on the giving scale? What do you think that might look like?
Grant: I guess the question would be for what purposes. Why would we want to evaluate teachers and students on the giving scale?
Pinkus: As another assessment measure… because this is something that is helpful to society and that we might want to cultivate this behavior.
Grant: If we’re not careful, we might have more takers becoming good fakers, trying to live up to our metrics of “Are you a giver?” “Well, yes, of course, I’m a giver. Here are all the ways that I’ve been helpful and generous.”
Pinkus: So you see it undermining the intention?
Grant: There’s a risk that the moment you start to create extrinsic incentives for behavior you would like to be intrinsically motivated, you may get people giving lip service to it without actually doing it. As we know from decades of research on the undermining effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation, there are conditions under which you can take a behavior that people would naturally endorse as meaningful, interesting, and fun, and if you start to reward it, people only do it for the reward. When the reward is gone, they no longer follow through with that behavior.
That being said, it would be helpful to give teachers and students benchmarks for what would constitute giving so that they can evaluate themselves, which is really hard to do. I wouldn’t want to stake too much on it, but I would say it could be interesting for students to evaluate teachers not only on conveying knowledge, but also in providing help.
Pinkus: You mention that in American culture people don’t believe that many people around them are givers, and schools have a role to play here. Should grading curves and rankings that pit people against each other be eliminated?
Grant: When it comes to encouraging giving, grading curves and forced rankings can be a complete disaster. There’s a lot of research showing that when you create zero-sum situations, it’s hard for people to feel that they can help and contribute to each other, let alone even cooperate, because you’ve created an inherently competitive situation in which your failure is my success. I think that’s a really dangerous and tragic way to teach students about how the world works.
If you look at research on motivation, ever since Victor Vroom and others started doing this kind of work in the 1950s, we’ve known that people will work harder when they see a connection between their effort and their performance. If you have a grading curve that requires a certain number of students to get B’s and C’s, then you’re disrupting those beliefs: no matter how hard I try, it’s possible that somebody else could do better, and then I won’t get the grade that I deserve. So why should I try hard?
Pinkus: What are some possible solutions educators can consider?
Grant: There’s a powerful example that was in the news recently about a UCLA professor who let his students "cheat on an exam." It’s not what it sounds like, at least at first. He told them it was going to be an impossibly difficult exam, they could talk to anybody during it, and they could bring all of their notes. Because it was going to be so challenging, the students knew that they still had to prepare. The professor encouraged them to learn the material cold, but to do it in a way that allowed them to rely on each other and help each other with the test. I thought it was a brilliant example, and it’s gotten me thinking a little bit about different ways that I can incorporate some of those possibilities into my own classroom.
Last year, I had a group of students announce that having a final exam was a bad idea because it imposed a lot of stress. I had expressed that it was important to me that students learn a lot and be successful, but also enjoy college, and my undergrads banded together on the last day of class, and said, “We want to negotiate for no final exam.” I said, “I would love to support that, but as a negotiation professor, my job is to get beyond positions and toward interests. My understanding is that your interest here is in reducing your stress level. My interest is in making sure that you learn the material, and that you really internalize the key concepts from this course. I’ve not been convinced from the data I’ve gathered that this can be done easily without a final exam, so if you have another proposal, let me know. “
They suggested a few ideas, but I didn’t think any of them were viable from a learning standpoint, and they didn’t have the evidence to convince me otherwise. So I said, “OK look, I want to do something that will not only reduce your stress level a little bit but also allow for the testing process to take into account the principles that we’ve been studying.” I told them that the multiple choice questions were going to be extremely difficult (which they always are on my exams). I invited them to select one question on which they were uncertain of their answer, and write down the name of someone else in the class who they thought knew it. If that student got the question right, they would get that peer’s points. What I saw was that more students studied together. They learned what everyone else knew, they taught each other some things, and it was just a small way to promote a little bit more helping and support in the classroom. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and they seemed to get a kick out of it, so I plan to continue it.
Pinkus: What can educational institutions do individually and collectively to cultivate and sustain a successful giving mentality among all stakeholder groups in schools: administration, faculty, staff, and students?
Grant: I think it’s a really tough question. If I knew the answer to it, I would be out trying to lobby education policymakers, and speaking to groups of school principals, and so on. Frankly, it’s part of why I wrote Give and Take. I was hoping to create a common language for these ideas, and allow people to recognize that if we could create a norm where more people act like givers, it’s possible that we could expand the pie such that we’re all able to achieve our goals more effectively. From here, it would be exciting to see some new and creative solutions emerge.
Pinkus: Let’s discuss giving in and out of the professional realm. How are you able to juggle giving on the personal and professional fronts?
Grant: I think setting boundaries is really important and being clear. So for me, “family first, students second, colleagues third, everyone else fourth” is something I have in my mind every day when a request comes in. Is there a risk that if I say yes to this, then it will compromise or hurt my ability to support my family and to be there for my students and for my colleagues? Also, when a request comes in, and I’m not in a position to offer unique help, I’ve tried to get better at making an introduction to someone else. I feel really lucky to have a network of givers who are willing to do that and help carry the responsibility of supporting people.
The other thing that’s been really useful for me is Nancy Rothbard’s research on work-life spillover. Many people assume that if you take on more at work, it’s going to deplete your home and family life, but Nancy finds that beyond these depleting effects, there are also enriching effects. Sabine Sonnentag and I did a study showing that on days that you made more of a difference at work, you actually brought more energy and joy back to home: you felt like your work really mattered, and you have more excitement and enthusiasm to share with your family. I experience that personally: on days where I feel that I’ve had a meaningful impact at work, I feel like I’m sometimes a better husband and a better dad. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that work can enrich home life, not only deplete it. The key, of course, is to set really careful boundaries to facilitate more of the enriching effects and fewer of the depleting effects.
Pinkus: Would you recommend that people establish a circle of givers whom they can go to?
Grant: If you want to be a successful giver, it’s invaluable to have a group of givers who committed to the same goals. One of my favorite examples from the book is Jason Geller, a Deloitte consulting partner. After he mentors a group of consultants who get promoted, when he mentors a new class, he invites the old class of mentees to pay it forward. As a result, the new consultants are learning from a more diverse group of mentors, and Jason is making sure that the people he mentored end up giving. This also reduces some of the burden on his time, so he can scale his impact a bit. I think that’s extremely useful.