Wharton professor Adam Grant (2013) notes three types of work traits among successful people – giving, taking, and matching. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. Not surprisingly, givers predominate among those least successful, because they are easy to exploit and take advantage of. Givers are guided by the life values of helpfulness (working for the well-being of others), responsibility (being dependable), social justice (caring for the disadvantaged), and compassion (responding to the needs of others). Takers, on the other hand, are guided by the life values of wealth (money and material possessions), power (dominance and control over others), pleasure (enjoying life), and winning (doing better than others). In life outside work, a majority of people in a majority of world’s cultures, endorse giving as the most important guiding value. However, most feel social pressure not to operate as givers at work, for the fear of being perceived weak or naïve. People tend not to be willing to contribute more than they receive in the work sphere. Instead, environment often pressurizes them to perceive work as a zero-sum game, and to lean in the taker direction, in order to avoid being exploited and burning out.
Servant Leadership as Strategic Giving
I continue exploring my leadership philosophy. Today, I elaborate on the servant dimension of my leadership, grounded in the principle of strategic giving. When doing my American Council of Education Fellowship, several university presidents identified their leadership philosophy as servant leadership. This blogs offers a commentary on interpreting servant leadership from the lens of strategic giving, based on the research on successful leaders, cross-cultural person-environment fit dimensions, and my own experiences.
What has been surprising finding from the extensive research is that the givers also predominate among those in the most successful leadership roles! The successful givers develop many strategies for networking, collaboration, influence, and negotiation, to avoid their exploitation and burnout. More specifically, they enact and promote prosocial behavior around them. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Adam Grant conducted a study to transform the work culture at the university fund raising call center. Instead of using cash prizes and competitive games, he proposed a simple low-cost experiment – during a 10-minute break, he brought in a student who had benefitted from the fund raising, who excitedly shared how the scholarship from the fund raising had changed his life and helped him work as a teacher with Teach for America. A month after, the student workers, using the same script, were devoting 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more funds. When Grant discussed this improvement with student workers, they rejected the proposition that the brief encounter with a scholarship student acted as a catalyst. They attributed their success to “more practice”, “better alumni pool over the past month” or luck. Grant replicated the test five times, eliminating all other explanations, and found that by the end the student workers were bringing in 400 percent more funds.
It was evident that the scholarship recipient story and its reiteration generated good feelings, that bypassed the student workers’ conscious cognitive processes and influenced their subconscious source of motivation. They were more driven to succeed, although they could not identify the trigger.
Unfortunately, in work settings, it is easy to take advantage of the prosocial proclivities of people. Consider the case of Borders, where staff contributed to an employee-beneficiary fund for employees in need, with Borders matching donated funds. The fund supported needs such as someone facing a pregnancy that would stretch their finances. Grant found that the donors, even those who give just a few dollars a week, showed significantly increased commitment to Borders, more so than the beneficiaries This stronger affective commitment was generated by a sense of “gratitude to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities.” However, the same factor made it rational for Borders to seek contributions from its employees, instead of funding all the critical employee needs itself.
What then differentiates the givers who end up as exploited doormats, versus those who breakout as model leaders? Grant finds that the most successful givers score high in not only concern for others but also self-interest. In other words, they are strategic givers – they are cautious about giving to takers, they give to other givers and matchers in order to achieve greatest desired impact, they give in ways that reinforce their social relationships, and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be recognized. They demonstrate acute empathy that makes giving rewarding for them, and have unusual focus and stamina that allows them to bend time and proffer more generosity.
Fostering a culture of strategic giving
If strategic givers tend to be most successful in leadership roles, then how might we foster a culture of strategic giving where all the members are empowered to be active leaders and life transformers. In my quest to seek answer to this question, last week I came across the research on the Chinese model of person-environment fit by Chuang, Hsu, Wang & Judge (2015). Traditionally, there are two approaches to studying person-environment fit in a work sphere. The first, supplementary role fit, focuses on similarity of a person’s characteristics such as values, goals and personality, to others in the environment. The second, complementary role fit, focuses on the differences of a person’s characteristics to others in the environment, that makes the system whole. On the first criterion, person-environment fit is stronger when a person operates as a taker in an environment of taker work culture; but on the second criterion, the fit is stronger when a person operates as a giver. Thus, person has a choice to achieve fit to the work environment by operating either as a taker or as a giver.
Chuang et al (2015) identify two conceptions of Confucian ideology as fundamental to how a person achieves fit in Chinese cultural environment. The first, relationalism, emphasizes harmonious relationships based on the self’s adaptability to others’ requests, and this adaptability is characterized by richness, humanity and human heartedness. The second, selfhood, emphasizes acute awareness of the social presence of others, where meaning of self is primarily as center of relationships – how one’s acts influence other individuals and relationships with those individuals. Lifelong learning is geared towards the achievement of becoming fully human selfhood, which entails balance among life domains. Thus, those in privileged positions seek to give benevolence and help to those in the vulnerable positions, such as new workers or junior workers. And, by maintaining a balance among their life domains, they are able to take support and understanding from family and other members, as they give more at work. Similarly, they are able to take support and understanding of those at work, as they give more to self and to their family when needed.
In other words, in Confucian ideology, giving is oriented towards achieving harmonious relationships in the work environment. In exchange, the person seeks to receive support for balance in life relationships – in terms of both balanced lifestyle (health, leisure, education) as well as balanced relationships (family, friends, community). How can a leader ensure that both this giving as well as exchange is strategic?
When a person gives for the cause of harmonious relationships in environments guided by a relational ideology, there is often a presumption of supplementary compatibility – you offer empathy, receptivity, adaptability, and accommodation to those who offer the same to you. However, in other environments, such giving may require embracing a complementary compatibility – you may offer this empathy even if you do not receive the same empathy from the stakeholders such as supervisors, coworkers, subordinates, customers, suppliers, or investors. With respect to supplementary compatibility, the person and the stakeholders may both be ‘enacting reciprocity’ in ongoing correspondences as well as ‘envisioning reciprocity’ from future correspondences. With respect to complementary compatibility, the person and the stakeholders may both have a deep social connection, expressed as understanding, and a deep emotional connection, expressed as trust.
In exchange, a person needs affordances from the environmental context to be able to engage in the entire range of life relationships with desired proportionality. In Confucian contexts, successful strategic givers have both the self-awareness of when the boundaries of life balance are challenged as well as the capacity to negotiate the help and resources needed to successfully achieve this balance. Additionally, they deploy strategic giving to enhance their other life relationships, and leverage their life relationships to enhance their capacity for giving. For instance, a faculty engaged in helping transform the lives of the students may receive respect, dignity, and support from the family, friends and community, and this respect, dignity, and support in turn enhances the faculty capacity to play the transformational role.
Unlike the Confucian context where the emphasis is on relations, the emphasis in the Western context is on market. In contexts guided by market theory, giving is oriented towards fullest application of one’s knowledge (education), skills (professional tact), and abilities (experiences). To achieve person-environment fit, the leaders must ensure that the person has the autonomy and the resources to give his or her fullest. Only then the person will be able to achieve desired performance and impact, of course conditional on having the characteristics required for the job.
Scholarly understanding of what people seek in exchange for giving their fullest in contexts guided by theory of markets has evolved. Traditionally, human motivation was seen primarily from the lens of appropriate compensation and quality of work environment. Increasingly, the significance of meaning has been surfaced. In other words, leaders must ensure that the person is engaged, inclusive, feeling significant and purposeful, and willing to make sacrifices and go beyond the call of role in service of the larger cause. Berg, Dutton & Wrzesniewski (2013) refer the infusion of meaning in a role by a person as “job crafting” – recoupling tasks, reformulating relationships, and reshaping purpose of the role, thus relentlessly reengineering their role to their unique passions, values, and strengths.
I contend that in addition to having a clear understanding of relational ideology and market theory, leaders seeking to act and to activate strategic giving should also recognize developmental realities of their work environment. Unlike the relational and market realms, the starting point for a person to act as a leader in the development realm is exchange, not giving. In other words, a person first needs to have the opportunity to transform and grow oneself. The opportunity to immerse in novel experiences, learning or doing something fresh, new, different, diverse, challenging or intellectually stimulating. Leaders who do not operate in the development realm might have their team members say, “My supervisor did not ask me to join the meeting to observe the difficult negotiations. He would have invited me if he’d really wanted to help me develop my potential.” (quote adapted from Chuang et al, 2015) On the contrary, the leaders who offer novel opportunities to others help those others to continuously become and to aspire to become a different person, experiencing improvement, learning, and personal growth. Such leaders activate the members to continuously cultivate broader horizons and deeper understanding about self and about the system; and to develop capacity for more strategic contributions across the different life domains. For instance, a person who learns how to negotiate in tough situations may apply this learning not only at the work place but also to achieve balance and harmony in social and personal relationships.
A person who receives the opportunity to develop is in a unique position to become a strategic giver by taking on an empowered leadership mindset in any environment. For such a person, neither relational nor market fits are necessary conditions to be a strategic giver. Instead, all this person needs to act is a realization of the potential environmental spaces to transform and develop. If the person has received immersive development experience, then the person can begin problematizing challenges in the environmental context and forming personal aspirations and dreams for activating the desired transformations. The person can also begin successfully envisioning tailored action plans and supporting measures and conceptual approaches for reformulations. The person can begin imagining and implementing a temporal portfolio of living experiments, diligently monitoring how those trials transform the environment. And, finally, the person can even begin perceiving the positive impact of this engagement on the environment and imprint their identity on the transformation process. An interesting example is found in Chuang et al (2015), who found a senior engineer concerned about new R&D engineers caring only about their professions and thus not being innovative. To address the issue, the senior engineer self-activated as a leader by initiating an internal training camp to help nearly 40 fresh engineer employees understand patent and innovation process. He noted that “changing these engineers’ mindsets is a mission of his life.
To summarize, my philosophy of servant leadership is to be a strategic giver and to catalyze strategic giving in my life relationships, in market exchanges, as well as in the development realm.
Grant, Adam (2013), Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, NY: Penguin Books.
Chuang, A., Hsu, R. S., Wang, A. C., & Judge, T. A. (2015). Does West “fit” with East? In search of a Chinese model of person–environment fit. Academy of Management Journal, 58, 480-510.
Berg, J. M., Dutton, J. E., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2013) Job Crafting and Meaningful Work. In B. J. Dik, Z. S. Byrne & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Purpose and meaning in the workplace (pp. 81-104). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.