We all know successful people who are self-serving at work, who take more than they offer. In a cutthroat, competitive world, they tend to dominate givers, colleagues who happily contribute without necessarily expecting anything in return. According to conventional wisdom, being a giver means leaving ourselves vulnerable to exhaustion — and exploitation by takers. Offer a client a one-time discount, and you might get stuck with it for a decade. Volunteer to help colleagues solve problems, and you’ll end up burning the midnight oil, running out of time and energy to get your own work done. Advise and champion a high-potential mentee, and you could very well be passed over for your next promotion.
Recognizing the perils of generosity, many of us protect ourselves by waiting until we achieve success, and then start giving back professionally. Along the way, we reserve our giving for families, friends, charity, and volunteer activities outside the workplace. On the job, we’re careful to live our lives in the middle. We become matchers, striving to maintain an equal balance of giving and getting. A matcher is helpful enough to be a good person, but not so generous to be a sucker and sacrifice his or her own success.
But after studying these dynamics for the past decade, I’ve uncovered a paradox. Yes, there are a lot of givers who have low promotion and productivity rates, but givers also rise to the top. For example, studies show that although the engineers with the lowest productivity are givers, so are the engineers with the highest productivity. The same pattern emerges across a wide range of occupations. In medical school, the givers are the students with both the lowest grades and the highest grades. In my own research with hundreds of sales people, I’ve found that those who generate the lowest revenue are givers, as are those who generate the highest. The takers and matchers are more likely to land somewhere in between. And across many industries, from banking to manufacturing to retail, givers are most likely to earn promotions and ascend to leadership positions.
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