Why Hiring 'Givers' Matters

Fall 2017

By Donna Orem

Early in my career, I traveled to New York City to oversee a conference for my organization. This was the first large event I had managed, and I prided myself on the diligence with which I approached every detail—or so I thought. I arrived at the hotel where the conference was due to begin, only to discover that six boxes of conference materials had been delivered to the wrong hotel, a half mile away. I quickly walked to that hotel, located the missing boxes, and had a bellman take them to the hotel entrance where I planned to load the boxes into a taxi and deliver them to the right location.

Unfortunately, a major convention in town had stalled taxi service, and the wait was at least 90 minutes—and, alas, no Uber or Lyft in those days. The bellman, whose name was Jimmy, looked at me and said, “Follow me.” He pushed his luggage cart into oncoming traffic and ran the half mile, with me trailing behind. He then refused a tip, telling me that seeing the smile on my face was reward enough for him. Before I could even react, he ran down the street back to the other hotel.

When I returned home, I wrote a letter to the hotel praising Jimmy’s service—he saved my event. I received a basic form letter in response thanking me for my feedback. The experience left me feeling elated that such giving people exist in this world and dismayed that such givers are often not recognized for what they bring to an organization. Jimmy was a giver.

There’s been a lot of notable research recently about givers and takers in the workplace, which is important to consider when hiring. But it’s especially important to first put that research into the greater context of the overall recruitment process.

Recruiting Right

Hiring the right people is crucial to success. As Jim Collins first suggested in Good to Great, employers need to concentrate first on who then move to what. Those of us in the nonprofit sector tend to make three mistakes in the hiring process that set us and our employees up for failure, according to consultant Chris Chang in an article he wrote for Stanford Social Innovation Review. Chang describes these common mistakes in this way:

1. Hiring to meet a multitude of needs.

Because of scarce resources, we often try to have one position fill many needs, usually with disastrous results.

My own hiring experience at NAIS has confirmed this over and over again. Today, our HR director works closely with hiring managers to focus the job description on the main job to be done so we can be sure that we are hiring an employee who has a strength in that one arena. Chang suggests organizations consider outsourcing the parts of a job that are outside the main scope.

2. Using aspirational thinking in hiring.

Because we like someone’s personality or their personal story, we often become convinced that they can grow into a role. But there’s a difference between wanting to nurture talent and blindly putting someone into a position based on gut feeling and hope.

One of my biggest hiring mistakes as a rookie manager was believing that just because someone was good at one job that she would be good at an unrelated job. We now use the Omnia Profile assessment at NAIS to fit
candidates to a particular job. This tool has been invaluable in hiring people who are a strong match for the unique position. 

3. Hiring from a weak pool.

Because of timing and resources, we may choose an employee from the best of a mediocre pool or not cast the net widely enough to bring in people with varying backgrounds.

We should expand our pools to bring in candidates beyond our own industry—people who view a school through a very different lens can offer a unique perspective that can help the community to learn and grow.

I would add a fourth to this list of mistakes: ignoring the need to build a team. We often hire people because we like them as individuals, without thinking about how well they will perform in a team. As it turns out, research shows that givers can make the difference in team success.

Why Givers Take the Cake

After 9/11, a group of psychologists investigated what made intelligence units most successful. They considered attributes like the size of the team, the team’s vision, how well-defined the roles and responsibilities were, and team leadership. Although all of these play some role in a team’s success, they found that the single strongest predictor of group effectiveness was the amount of help team members gave each other. Further, they found that “in the highest-performing teams, team members invested extensive time and energy in coaching, teaching, and consulting with their colleagues. These contributions helped members question their own assumptions, fill gaps in their knowledge, gain access to novel perspectives, and recognize patterns in seemingly disconnected threads of information.”

Studies led by Philip Podsakoff, management professor at Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business, found that helping-behavior facilitates organizational effectiveness by:

  • enabling employees to solve problems and get work done faster.
  • enhancing team cohesion and coordination.
  • ensuring that expertise is transferred from experienced to new employees.
  • reducing variability in performance when some members are overloaded or distracted.
  • establishing an environment in which customers and suppliers feel that their needs are the organization’s top priority.

The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School’s Adam Grant has written extensively on this topic. His 2013 book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, outlines why our success most fundamentally rests on our relationships with others. Through his research, he uncovered three different types of organizational cultures.

  • Giver cultures: Employees help one another, share knowledge, offer mentoring, and make connections without expecting anything in return.
  • Taker cultures: Employees get as much as possible from others while contributing less in return.
  • Matcher cultures: Employees help only those who help them, maintaining an equal balance of give and take.

In a 2013 article for McKinsey & Company, Grant provides many research-based case studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of giver cultures. One research initiative, led by Michael Johnson, associate professor of management at the University of Washington, is particularly compelling. He divided groups of people into teams that received either cooperative or competitive incentives for completing difficult tasks. The cooperative incentives rewarded the team as a whole, whereas the competitive incentives went to the highest-performing individual within the team. What he found was that the competitive team finished the task more quickly, but the cooperative team completed the task with greater accuracy. And, here is where his experiment gets really interesting: “To boost the accuracy of the competitive teams,” Grant writes, “the researchers next had them complete a second task under the cooperative reward structure (rewarding the entire team for high performance). Notably, accuracy didn’t go up—and speed actually dropped.” What Johnson concluded was that people have difficulty transitioning from competitive to cooperative rewards and developed a “pattern of cutthroat competition.”

So, how do we locate and hire people who are givers? Grant suggests that it starts with weeding out takers through the hiring process. We must be very intentional to look for three tell-tale signs of a taker personality.

  • Takers take personal credit for their successes. They will use the words “I” and “me” exclusively in responding to interview questions.
  • Takers often manage up and kick down. They are charming to supervisors but often abusive with subordinates. Grant suggests always getting references from direct reports to get a sense of this.
  • Takers engage in antagonistic behavior at the expense of others. They often put others down or will talk about their success in relation to how much better they are than others.

To paraphrase Jim Collins, job one is to get the right people in the right seats. Collins also reminds us that it is better to hire for character than for skill. If I worked for a hotel and was hiring a bellman today, I would look for Jimmy. The givers in this world make it a better place and drive our organizations to success.


Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is president at NAIS.