The Secret to Succeeding in the Workplace

A couple weeks ago, I had an interview with a corporate executive. This is a man who has been a school teacher, tennis coach, longshoreman, gardener, and who is now one of the highest ranking executives at Boeing.

However, at the end of our lively and lighthearted interview, he politely asked me not to share his identity. It was upon hearing this strange request that I knew my nagging suspicions were indeed correct – he was most certainly Batman. Nevertheless, I agreed.

Since I cannot use his name and prestigious title to lend credence to a blog post, I have chosen to intertwine his interview with the book Give and Take, by Adam Grant. It actually works out, as I have never met a man who better embodied the principles of this book than did this masked executive.

Give and Take, by Adam Grant

Give and Take, by Adam Grant

Give and Take gravitates around the idea of there being two separate paths to influence: dominance, which comes from force, and prestige, which comes from respect and admiration.

The path that we choose characterizes us as being either a giver or a taker.

Takers are more likely to boast of their accomplishments, manipulate others for their own benefit, and highlight themselves as the sole contributor or leading factor in their company’s success. They’re the type of people who give only when others are watching and who may adhere to a feigned and pretentious moral standard only to gain favor in the public eye.

Givers are the opposite in that their goals circulate around other people’s welfare and success. Although they do possess self-interest and set personal goals, they give more freely of their time and knowledge without expecting anything in return. Givers will give regardless of who is watching or how it helps their reputation. They also tend to credit the team for their efforts rather than highlighting their own successes and contributions, and are less likely to be culprits of responsibility bias.

One might naturally assume that givers are weaker and subservient by nature and cannot thrive in the cutthroat corporate environment. Although this assumption is not completely incorrect, it does have some major oversights.

Research shows that there are many givers at the bottom of the corporate ladder. So guess who’s at the top? The givers again. The takers tend to cluster towards the middle.

This research suggests that although givers may dwell at the lower end of the hierarchy, small changes to their strategy can result in colossal impacts to their success.

For example, I asked our mysterious executive what set him apart from his peers throughout his career. Here was his response:

People believed that I cared more about their accomplishments and goals more than about myself. I wasn’t in it for myself and people could see that. I also focused on getting teams to work together in ways they hadn’t before, and I always gave it 100% – I left it all on the field, so to say.

I also had a reputation for being transparent. If I thought something was stupid, I’d say so, though I’d do it respectfully and politely. You have to fight for what you believe in.

But I felt proudest when someone told me that I treat everybody the same, whether it’s the janitor or the CEO.

Our hero’s answer reveals two key aspects of his personality: he’s other-focused, and he’s also assertive. In other words, he’s a giver but not a doormat.

As Grant writes, there are two different types of givers: selfless and other-ish. Selfless givers are focused on others but not on themselves. This is also called pathological altruism in which one focuses so much on others that they neglect their own needs.

Other-ish givers are ones who care about others but also have personal goals and their own self-interests. Our anonymous executive is an other-ish giver.

Most givers are good at screening people for insincerity. They can tell when someone is a taker disguised as a giver. If a giver detects a charlatan, they can withhold their giving tendencies and treat this person with caution, mitigating the threat and avoiding any personal loss.

The major difference between selfless and other-ish givers is that other-ish givers apply this filter while selfless givers do not. This makes selfless givers easy targets for those looking to take advantage of them.

As Grant writes:

Being other-ish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.

Another characteristic of a taker is that they strive to be the smartest in the room. Givers, on the other hand, are more inclined to learn from others and draw on the expertise of other people.

Let’s examine how our unnamed executive demonstrates this attitude.

In Huntington Beach, the janitor was my mentor. I was going to school for my PhD and so I’d often come in to work to make up the hours I missed for classes, and it’d be 10 or 11 at night. It’d just be me and the janitor there and I got to know him. He was a very wise man and he taught me about family, living – just a wise, wise man.

Another mentor that I had was actually two levels below me. I was a senior manager and he was working for me but he taught me about leading an integrated life with family, work, and everything else. Also, my bosses above me coached me.

One mentor told me when I first started, “Don’t ever think that you’re too smart to learn from anyone. If you’re arrogant, then you won’t listen to them and you may miss something life-changing.”

That’s why when people like you call me, I never say no, although it may take 3 months for us to get in touch, I never say no. Someone at one time helped me and so in turn, I will do the same for others.

The willingness to learn from anyone equips givers with the advantage of learning from experts and drawing upon the strength of their well-kept personal networks. People know givers for being respectful and openhearted, and thus are more inclined to reciprocate and contribute to the giver’s success.

This may be why research shows that those who give more freely of their time and knowledge end up getting more raises and promotions in a wide range of settings.

Also, when you’re not trying to shunt aside and alienate your coworkers in your race to the top, you may achieve a higher degree of happiness and fulfillment.

According to our executive:

I can be happy anywhere. I am there just to serve and not with an alternate agenda. Some people set out with the goal to be the CEO, but I never gave that a second thought. I just wanted to serve and contribute to the team.

Giving will take you a long way. When you sincerely give to others and act with the team’s goals in mind, both you and your team are more likely to succeed. On top of that, your relationships will be more fulfilling and long-lasting, your peers and superiors will see you as trustworthy and reliable, and you become a much more valuable asset to your company.

A Boeing 737 operated by Southwest Airlines, a company with a reputation for giving

A Boeing 737 operated by Southwest Airlines, a company with a reputation for giving

Before closing, I want to make a special note that being a giver does not mean that you have to be meager or poor. It does not mean that being rich is bad or that money is the root of all evil.

In fact, the most successful givers are ambitious and achieve massive incomes and prestige. The difference is that rather than being driven by personal prestige and self-glorification, they are likely driven by a loyalty to someone else – their families, friends, or even for a worldly cause.

Adam Grant tells us about a giver named Jon Huntsman, a multi-billionaire, who was known to have given away upwards of $300 million during negotiations. The sacrifice wasn’t necessary but was to honor his prior commitments. It also shows his propensity to give.

Huntsman, like many other successful people, believes that being a giver is what made him rich. His desire to give back drove him to pursue an education in business, to apply that education persistently, and ultimately to grow the incredibly lucrative Huntsman Chemical Corporation.

The desire to give can propel you upward far past the reach of those who only want to take from you.

Like many things in life, the intuitive approach is not always the right one. The aggressive, every-man-for-himself taker approach may seem like the right pathway to winning, but the true message that history has repeatedly shown to us is that whether it’s of our time, money, knowledge, patience, or even our compassion, it’s always better to give than to take.

In summary:

  • Givers are present at the bottom but also dominate the top of the ladder
  • Be a giver but not a doormat. Give but keep an eye on your own goals and interests
  • Giving freely of your time and knowledge tends to get you more raises and promotions
  • Givers are more willing to learn from others, whether they’re janitors or executives
  • The way to wealth is through giving, not through taking

***To learn more about how to be successful in the workplace and how to be a better leader, check out Give and Take, by Adam Grant.***

***Be sure to FOLLOW this blog for more posts on business, psychology, and personal development.***

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Boeing Company.

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