Here’s a new take on performance management that is sure to be the cause of debate: Adam Grant’s “revolutionary approach” for fostering high work performance. The trick, according to Grant, professor of management at Wharton School, lies in encouraging employees to become more generous.

Sounds too nice? Too good to be true? Well, Grant is a high achiever himself (at 31, he’s Wharton’s youngest full prof & and among “the 40 world’s best B-School profs under 40”) and he credits much of his success to being particularly generous in the service of others.

In April 2013’s Harvard Business Review, Grant explains himself, citing research he conducted in call centres and where efforts to reframe organisational citizenship behaviours as acts of generosity to other employees (helping out colleagues or sharing knowledge) led to significant increases to objective work performance – for example, sales went up dramatically in those call centres that were included in the research interventions.

He divides employees into three categories, according to the way they reciprocate favours: Givers, Takers, and Matchers. Matchers are most of us: we return a favour but only initiate one when we’re sure to get something back, tit-for-tat style. Takers try to get as much as they can from everyone else – they’re the freeloaders in organisations that everyone loves to loathe. A particular kind of Giver though is not only very helpful to others but also highly successful her/himself: the type of person who excels at a strategic behavior that Grant calls “the 5 minute favour”. Such a favour is of low cost to the Giver but has great benefit to others. Great Givers hence either help others out, without knowing immediately how they themselves will benefit from their act of generosity, or they take the 2 extra minutes it takes them to introduce the person in need of a favour to someone they know who may be able to help out better and more efficiently than they can.

For sure, the keyword here is “strategic”. Grant goes to great length to outline how ‘Beginner Givers’ can avoid “the Doormat Effect” (quick clip of Grant explaining this here: – in other words, getting used and abused by Takers and risking being left at the bottom of the corporate performance ladder.

A simple but ingenious way for Givers to test whether someone actually deserves the favour they’re about to make is this: If someone asks you for a favour, ask them to pay it forward to someone else in some small way, and check up on that promise. If they’re unwilling to do so, don’t waste your time.

Grant’s research seems sound, and is noteworthy because it goes against the grain of more classic notions in performance management. And it makes sense too; Grant cites the work of Robb Willer at Berkeley, who found that in today’s increasingly connected world, Takers’ selfish acts are more likely to be exposed through “pro social gossip” – gossip that has a specific function: to expose those freeloaders among us in our (work) communities.

Wouldn’t you also like it if people couldn’t stop talking about you because of your ingenious generosity and your smart ways to connect people and resources?

Jutta Tobias

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