Here's Why Giving Is the Secret to Getting Ahead

Givers have got an edge! Research shows that some of the most successful people are also generous with their time, wisdom, and insight. Here's why being a giver at work gives you a competitive advantage, along with some strategies to help you wisely distribute your gifts.

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #624
The Quick And Dirty

Research shows those who are workplace givers are more successful. To be a giver:

  • Manage burnout
  • Focus on the Five-Minute Favor
  • Build a culture through role modeling
  • Be giving ... of a "no"

With the approach of the American Thanksgiving holiday, many of us are focused on being thankful right now. And being thankful is something we should all do. Gratitude can give our minds and hearts a boost, especially when times are tough.

But "Thanksgiving" is a compound word that combines "thanks"—the gratitude I just mentioned—and "giving." So, let's give giving some air time today. And I'm not talking about the giving that involves financial donations to charitable causes (although, of course, do that if you can!) but the giving of yourself—your spirit, time, wisdom, and insight. Because as it turns out, being a giver at work is actually a competitive advantage. Research shows givers are the real winners.

Today we’ll talk about the why, what, and how of being a professional giver. We’ll cover strategies you can put to work today. Or at least after the turkey is fully digested.

Giving in action

Years ago, I started a new job. On day one, I met a giver named Ann. She took one look at my deer-in-headlights expression and invited me to lunch. She was generous and candid, sharing tips on how things really got done, offering to make introductions, and advising which pre-packaged items in the cafeteria were likely to induce salmonella.

That lunch was the first of many. Ann showed me the same generosity of spirit throughout my five years at that company. And my time wouldn’t have been the same without her.

I’ve since left that job, but Ann remains a dear friend. She still works there her career has sky-rocketed. She’s a senior, highly respected executive who still gives her time generously. Now, she’s also, of course, excellent at what she doe—giving alone doesn’t ensure success. But in a sea of high-performers, being a giver can offer just the competitive edge you need to win.

If this sounds squishy, rest assured ... I've got data.

What defines a giver?

Research conducted by Wharton professor Adam Grant (as described in this Fast Company interview) shows that people who are givers at work ultimately achieve the greatest long-term professional success. Grant defines success broadly and across industries, looking at measures like productivity and revenue production in business, and patient outcomes in healthcare.

Grant identifies three types of people.

  1. Givers are those who "want to help others independent of an easily foreseeable payback. They're generous with time and expertise and go out of their way to help."
  2. Takers are those who "put their own interests ahead of others and seek to come out ahead in every exchange."
  3. Matchers are those who "give... in expectation [that] our favors will be returned."

According to Grant, most of us are matchers—we give and expect to get something as a result.

How to be a successful giver

Givers achieve the highest levels of success.

But there’s a catch. As Grant explains in his TED Talk, the most successful people were givers. But paradoxically, the least successful people were also givers.

That's because there are effective and ineffective ways to be a giver. So let’s cover some strategies to help you do it wisely and with success.

Manage burnout

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Burnout is on the rise, and its risks, both physiological and emotional, are real. Managing your risk of burnout by setting boundaries, balancing your workload, and making time for self-care, is not a selfish act. It’s an act of service to yourself and your company.

Successful givers don't take on everything asked of them.

Givers are attuned to this and manage their gifts accordingly. Successful givers don't take on everything asked of them. Instead, they monitor and manage their own priorities and won’t say yes to an ask if it threatens their own ability to meet a deadline.

My friend Ann was amazingly generous, but not at the expense of her own work. She was never afraid to close her office door when she was deep in focused work. She just made a conscious effort to open it as soon as her time freed up. She managed her time well. She didn’t prioritize giving over everything else; she just actively made space for it. And because of that, she never seemed overwhelmed.

Focus on the Five-Minute Favor

This is another strategy Grant covers in his TED Talk on Givers.

I once had a boss who told me “Every day someone will ask you to do something that is not your responsibility. Your job is to learn to say no. Unless you can do it in five minutes or less, in which case do the thing. It’s a small price to pay for the trust you’ll earn.”

If you can do something in five minutes or less, do the thing.

That was some of the best advice I was ever given. And I’ve become quite adept in the art of the quick win!

How can you put this to use? Here are some ideas.

  • Make an introduction. Who are two people in your life who could benefit from knowing each other? Shoot a quick email of connection.
  • Share knowledge or insight. While takers tend to hoard information, givers thrive on sharing insights in the right moments. Receive a compelling marketing email from another company? Forward it to a marketing colleague with a sentence about what you think worked well. Maybe there’s a strategy in there that they can put to use.
  • Highlight an achievement. It’s OK to enjoy being in the spotlight. But givers enjoy equally shining that light on others, and not just for the grand, shiny moments. Sometimes it’s highlighting someone’s quiet contribution that can really have an impact.

One quick and fun way to do shine a spotlight on someone's achievement is to use LinkedIn’s Kudos feature. This allows you to recognize someone in a way visible to all in your network. You can make someone’s day in a matter of moments.

Build a culture through role modeling

True Givers don’t just give of themselves, they also help build a culture of giving at work. Being a role model when it comes to asking for help, and giving others the opportunity to give, is a powerful way to do this.

Here are some ways you might role model giving.

  • Ask for advice. Choose a problem you’re noodling on and find a colleague whose insights may help you choose the right path. Be genuine—don’t pose a problem you’ve already solved. Give someone the gift of feeling helpful.
  • Ask for coaching. Personally I rely on my secret circle of mentors for this. I’m good at what I do, but I can always get better. Having people to challenge my thinking, suggest new ways of engaging with clients, or even encouraging me to be bolder in my pricing is a win. I’m never shy about asking for coaching. The ask is genuine, but I know my advisors appreciate the opportunity to support me.
  • Delegate developmental work. Is someone on your team looking to grow a skill or have an experience? And is there a piece of work you might ask them to take on in service of gaining that experience?

Delegating doesn't mean dumping grunt work on someone; it's about making a thoughtful choice. Is there an aspiring copywriter on your team? Invite them to write a client pitch. Know someone hoping to build their speaking skills? Invite them to run a team meeting for you. Help someone grow through the gift of developmental work.

Be giving ... of a "no"

Finally, the most successful givers don’t hand out yesses like Oprah hands out cars. They boldly say no when they’re not the best person for the job.

Personally, I fancy myself a giver. Need some career advice? Have a sticky situation on your team? Need to manage a change? I’ll make time any day of the week.

But working on a complex spreadsheet and need some backup? Turns out I’m washing my hair that day. All day.

Choose your gifts wisely.

And there you have it. I hope I’ve given you (see what I did there?) some good food for thought. I invite you now to pay it forward. Get out there and give something meaningful to someone around you. Then, watch your personal stock price start to soar.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.