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May 26 2014 7:12 AM

Nice Guys Finish First

The hot new theory that says generous people do better at work than selfish ones.

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Givers perform all sorts of selfless acts with no expectation of reciprocity, regularly prioritizing other people’s needs above their own.

Photo by Everett Collection/Shutterstock

We often assume that the people most likely to zoom ahead within organizations are the ruthless, pragmatic types who are all about No. 1: People always looking for ways to benefit themselves. “Operators” who try to derive maximum gain from every workplace transaction.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

According to Adam Grant, that assumption is dead wrong. Grant, at 32 years old, is already a major star in the world of organizational psychology. He is Wharton’s youngest full professor, and has consulted for clients that include Google, the NFL, Goldman Sachs, and the United Nations. His first book, Give and Take, was released last year and soon became a New York Times best-seller. In short, he’s one of those hyper-successful types who we might imagine fiercely clawing his way to the top with little regard for others.

Yet Grant’s approach is precisely the opposite. He tries to be as generous and selfless as he can. A profile of Grant in the New York Times Magazine last year detailed his superhuman efforts to help other people. And his research—as laid out in his book—suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, nice guys actually finish first.

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Grant divides the typical workplace into three types of people: takers, matchers, and givers. Takers are those selfish folks who always have a sharky angle and forever put their personal interests ahead of everybody else’s. Matchers (the bulk of us) view the world in terms of fairness and balanced ledgers—I scratch your back, with the unstated but firm understanding that at some point you will scratch mine. Givers, by contrast, perform all sorts of selfless acts with no expectation of reciprocity. They tirelessly pitch in for their colleagues, eagerly mentor their underlings, and regularly prioritize other people’s needs above their own.

You might guess that givers—while lovely people—lack the sharp elbows required to get ahead in corporate America. And, to some extent, you’re right. Grant acknowledges that studies reveal many givers tend to linger at the bottom of the food chain, with low promotion and productivity rates. They fail to excel because they’re too busy helping other people do just that.

But though they’re overrepresented at the bottom, Grant’s most interesting finding is that givers also climb to the top. You’ll find givers massed at the two ends of the spectrum, with takers and matchers in the middle.

Why is this? Grant suggests that takers may temporarily succeed, but once found out they pay a hefty price. Most people are in fact eager to punish folks they perceive as takers: Studies show that we’ll choose to sacrifice our own gains if it means seeing justice meted out to someone we deem piggy.

Matchers don’t suffer in this way as a result of their attitudes. But they also don’t benefit. As Grant has written, “matchers often leave a transactional impression, as if they’re always keeping score.” We know where we stand with matchers, and for the most part we respect their moral code, but we grant them no particular credit for their behavior.

Meanwhile, givers construct valuable networks out of all the grateful colleagues who correctly perceive them as selfless and agenda-less. Givers share credit without demanding any in return, which spurs co-workers to flock to their projects. Their generosity earns them deep and lasting respect, which translates into potency. When a taker suggests an idea, others are naturally skeptical—what’s in it for her? But when a known giver has a notion, people are willing to get on board out of a sense that it must come from a place of genuine good will. What’s more, Grant argues, givers’ justified sense that they are contributing to a greater good helps keep them motivated and fulfilled in their work, which in turn improves their output.