The Power of Being Helpful

Want to help your organization increase the productivity and happiness of its employees? Want to increase your own? Try being helpful.

That’s the message of Adam Grant, the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at the Wharton School, who is the subject of a really fascinating cover story in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine. Grant is the sort of person for whom no request for help goes unanswered. Google gets in touch with him to help it solve problems, but just about everyone who reaches out to Grant for assistance gets help as well. Here’s a typical example:

His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!” He attached handouts and slides from the presentation on productivity he gave to the Academy of Management annual conference a few years earlier.”

Grant’s motivation to help others is mostly altruistic, but not entirely. He believes that focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than when we just think about helping ourselves. In his new book, Give and Take, he cites the example of a fundraising call center at the University of Michigan, where he was a student. The student-employees at the call center were feeling undermotivated, and no wonder: call-center work is often grueling and unsatisfying, and at this particular call center the rejection rate was 93 percent. The call-center manager had tried various ways of motivating the workers (including incentives and competitions) but none of them had worked.

Given that the call center raised funds that helped pay for student scholarships, Grant proposed giving the employees an opportunity to see the end results of their work. So he brought in a scholarship student to give a 10-minute talk about how the grant had changed his life and he was now about to start work as a teacher with Teach for America.  A month after the testimonial, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script.  Eventually, the call center’s revenues skyrocketed by 400 percent.

In another example cited in the article, Grant found that an employee-beneficiary fund managed by Borders Group had a notable impact on workers’ commitment to the company. Employees were given the opportunity to donate to the fund and have their donations matched by the company, which used the fund to help employees who were facing financial difficulty. Through interviews and questionnaires, Grant found that even employees who donated just a few dollars a week felt a significant increase in their commitment to Borders. Grant determined that “as a result of gratitude to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities, they developed stronger affective commitment to the company.”

In the article, Grant admits that some companies might take advantage of this altruistic impulse among workers to compensate for paltry pay or lousy working conditions. And showing employees the results of their work probably won’t compensate for deeper ills plaguing an organization. At a panel, one of Grant’s former professors sarcastically questioned whether employees at the Foxconn facility in China would stop committing suicide if they were shown people who were incredibly happy with their iPhones.

There’s plenty more in the article and I highly recommend it. One of the points that stuck with me is the benefit accrued from continually helping other people — when you readily do favors for other people, it results in a lot more people who are inclined to help you. As Susan Dominus, the article’s author, writes: “The path to success is filled with people helping to clear the way.”