Giving isn’t the secret
I don’t know if you read this article (h/t Radhika Sainath) on a hyperactive professor and Organizational Psychology researcher, Adam Grant, who always helps people when they ask and has a theory about giving. He claims that generous giving is the answer to getting ahead and feeling and being successful.
Well, as a “strategic giver” myself, let me tell you that giving isn’t the way to get ahead. Not as expressed by Grant, anyway*.
If you look carefully at the story, it reveals a bunch of things. Here are a few of them:
- Grant has a stay-at-home wife who deals with the kids all the time. Even so, she doesn’t seem all that psyched about how much time he devotes to helping other people (“Sometimes I tell him, ‘Adam — just say no,’ ”).
- He works all the time and misses sleep to get stuff done.
- He engages in high-profile strategic helping – he helps colleagues and students.
- Moreover, he does it in exaggerated and dramatic ways, leading to people talking about him and thanking him profusely, generally giving him attention.
- Considering that his area of research is how to get people to work hard and be more efficient through helping each other, this attention directly in line with his goal of gaining status.
- Just to be clear, he isn’t researching how to get other people to have high status like him, but rather how to get people to work harder in boring-ass jobs.
Put it all together, and you’ve got this disconnect between the way he applies “helping” to himself and to the subjects in his research.
He researches people in call centers, for example, and figures out how to get them to really believe in their work by seeing someone who benefitted from the associated scholarship program. But working harder doesn’t get them more status, it just makes them tired. The other examples in the article are similar. Actually some of them get grosser. Here’s a tasty excerpt from the article:
Jerry Davis, a management professor who taught Grant at the University of Michigan and is generally a fan of [Adam Grant]’s work, couldn’t help making a pointed critique about its inherent limits when they were on a panel together: “So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?”
So what does he means by “giving” when he’s considering other people? Working really hard in a dead-end job? Kinda reminds me of this review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” book, written by ex-Facebook disgruntled speech writer Kate Losse. Here’s my favorite line from that bitter essay:
For Sandberg, pregnancy must be converted into a corporate opportunity: a moment to convince a woman to commit further to her job. Human life as a competitor to work is the threat here, and it must be captured for corporate use, much in the way that Facebook treats users’ personal activities as a series of opportunities to fill out the Facebook-owned social graph.
In other words, Grant, like Sandberg, is selling us a message of working really hard with the underlying promise that it will make us successful, especially if we do it because we just love working really hard.
First, it really matters what you work on and who you are helping. If you are not a strategic helper, you end up wasting your time for no good reason. How many times have we seen people who end up doing their job plus someone else’s job, without any thanks or extra money?
If you work really hard on a project which nobody cares about, nobody appreciates it. True.
And if you aren’t a political animal, able to smell out the projects and people that are worth working on extra hard and helping, then you’re pretty much out of luck.
But let’s take one step back from the terrible advice being given by Grant and Sandberg. What are their actual goals? Is it possible that they really think just by working extra hard at whatever shit corporate job we have will leave us successful and fulfilled? Are they that blind to other people’s options? Do they really know nobody in their private lives who found fulfillment by quitting their dead-end corporate job and became a poor but happy poet?
Here’s what Kate Losse says, and I think she hit the nail on the head:
Sandberg is betting that for some women, as for herself, the pursuit of corporate power is desirable, and that many women will ramp up their labor ever further in hopes that one day they, too, will be “in.” And whether or not those women make it, the companies they work for will profit by their unceasing labor.
Similarly, Grant’s personal academic success comes from getting people to work harder. His incentive is to get you to work harder, not be fulfilled. Just to be clear.
* I actually do think giving is a wonderful thing, but certainly not exclusively at work, and it’s not a secret.