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Giving: Pro-social Motivation at Work

written by Amanda Horne 4 July 2013

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

Editor’s Note: This is the 6th in a series of articles about The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. See also Kirsten Cronlund’s article, A Powerful Collection: Book Review, Giselle Nicholson’s Innovativeness as Positive Deviance, and Amanda Horne’s articles, Virtuous Organizations, Positive Deviance and Civility.

What’s Fluffy about Helping Others Succeed?

A senior executive recently commented to me that his most highly motivated moments at work are when he’s contributing to the growth of others. The executive’s greatest strengths are in developing staff, bringing people together to create highly effective teams, and building strong stakeholder relationships. The executive then said “But this is a bit fluffy isn’t it?”

He is not alone. I meet many executives with similar strengths and similar concerns (“a bit soft, isn’t it?”). These reactions can be particularly prevalent when executives work in organizations that value technical capability more highly than people capability.

These executives are motivated by what Adam Grant and Justin Berg call pro-social motivation, “a desire to benefit other people and groups.” Pro-social motivation is the subject of the Grant and Berg chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. They point out that employees who are pro-socially motivated take initiative, persist in meaningful tasks, help others, enhance the well-being of others, strengthen cooperation and collaboration, are proactive and creative, perform better at work, are inspired, and have more energy.

This doesn’t sound very fluffy to me. Pro-socially motivated people perform most effectively when their jobs are designed so that the work they do has a direct impact on beneficiaries, whether they be clients, employees, or stakeholders.

Giving, Collaborating, and Success

If Adam Grant is a familiar name to you, it’s because he’s received a lot of attention recently, including Pat Schwartz’s recent review of his book, Give and Take. I haven’t read the book yet, but have read some wonderful articles that gave me insight into Grant’s work.

If you haven’t read the book, I’d like to suggest that you too read the articles listed below because although I provide some highlights, it’s not possible to cover the extent of Grant’s work in one short article.

Cultures of Giving

Grant draws together many years of research by himself and others on reciprocity and pro-social motivation. He suggests that corporate cultures sit on a continuum with giver cultures and taker cultures at the extremes and matcher cultures in the middle.

Matchers help others but expect an equal amount of help in return. They give to the people they think will help them in return.

Takers ask for help and give little or nothing in return. They tend to claim personal credit for success. They tend to “kiss up and kick down” and seek to come out ahead.

Givers are guided by pro-social motivation, “the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable or immediate payback.” Givers “add value without keeping score.” The most successful givers care highly for others but also have preserve self-interest, attending to their own work and personal needs. They give in ways that reinforce social ties. They set boundaries to ensure giving has maximum impact and joy, so that they don’t burn out or compromise their work commitments. They are cautious about giving to takers. Givers are motivated by a sense of service and contribution and are more productive when they think of helping others. Grant found however that givers are not successful if they lack assertiveness, become doormats, or give excessively.

Reaping the Rewards

Dr Grant’s work reveals that businesses benefit from effective giver behaviors in the following areas:

  • Group effectiveness, cohesion, coordination
  • Interpersonal networks
  • Sales performance, revenues
  • Productivity
  • Client satisfaction
  • Creativity
  • Quality
  • Problem solving
  • Staff retention, job satisfaction, sense of belonging, pride

“The greatest untapped source of motivation, Grant argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves” Adam Grant, quoted in a New York Times article

Creating a Giving Culture

Grant suggests that people in leadership positions can make a difference with the following behaviors:

  1. Encourage reciprocity: it’s ok to seek help; it’s good to give; pay it forward.
  2. Help givers to set boundaries. Guide them to be perspective takers if they are prone to lacking assertiveness or to being overwhelmed with excessive empathy which can cloud judgment.
  3. Guide giving behavior in the direction of best impact: helping others while still protecting one’s own work commitments.
  4. Emphasize the intrinsic motivation which occurs from being a giver.
  5. Help staff match their own expertise and resources to others’ needs.
  6. Implement reward and recognition systems that favor givers.
  7. Be a role model for giving behaviors.
  8. Design jobs so that people have contact with recipients or clients, encouraging a sense of purpose.
  9. Screen out takers; minimize the number of taker employees.

“By putting these into action, it’s possible to transform win/lose scenarios into win/win gains.” Adam Grant, Harvard Business Review

Do you have givers in your organization? Are you a giver, or a potential giver? Do you want to transform your organization? You might want to consider the points above and reflect on this thought from Adam Grant in an interview with Time Magazine:

“Organizations will always have a mix of these three basic styles. But there’s reason to believe that in the long run, the greatest success — and the richest meaning — will come to those who, instead of cutting other people down, pursue their personal ambitions in ways that lift others up. From a manager’s perspective, it would be wise to clear the path for more givers to succeed, so that they can bring others along as they climb to the top.” Adam Grant, Time Ideas



Grant, A. M., & Berg, J. M. (2011). Prosocial motivation at work: When, why, and how making a difference makes a difference. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Viking Press.

Give and Take website

Grant, A. (2013, April). In the company of givers and takers. Harvard Business Review.

Grant, A. (2013, April). Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture. The McKinsey Quarterly.

Grant, A. (2013, April). Viewpoint: Good Guys Can Win at Work. Time Ideas.

Grant, A. (2013). Fitting In and Standing Out: Shifting Mindsets from Taking to Giving. ChangeThis, 104.03.

Dominus, S. (2013, March). Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?. The New York Times Magazine.

Schawbel, D. (2013, April). Adam Grant: Be a Giver Not a Taker to Succeed at Work. Forbes Magazine.

Photo Credits:
First from Microsoft clip art. Pictures of Justin Berg and Adam Grant from their Web sites.
The rest via Compfight with Creative Commons license
Helping hands courtesy of Artotem
Customer service courtesy of Phil Dowsing Creative
Amish barn raising courtesy of cindy47452

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Judy Krings 5 July 2013 - 4:49 am

Great awareness augmenting bullet points, Amanda. Adding mindfulness to employee selection via screening for Givers, Takers and Matchers in business is a terrific idea. Social and emotional intelligence came to mind, too, as I ready your meaty article. Perhaps a post-it note on computer screen, “It ain’t just about me!” or as our beloved Chris Peterson always reminded us, “Other people matter. Period.”

Many thanks.

Marie-Josée Shaar 5 July 2013 - 11:16 am

Very powerful opening question and first statement, Amanda!
Right there, you painted a very relatable image that’s worth a thousand words. 😉


Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 6 July 2013 - 9:05 pm

I was at a meeting this past week where a woman presented about how we (at our organization) could create more of a culture of giving. Now we have our own foundation that we encourage people to give to, but what I really appreciated about her suggestion was that we should be encouraging employees to give also to organizations in the community – not just money, but also time (ideally paid by our organization where they work). I have to say, I loved this idea, and love it even more after reading your article. I think I will forward this along to her.

Amanda Horne 10 July 2013 - 5:18 pm

Hi Judy. Thank you, great point about daily reminders about ‘it’s about other people’. We could consider who that person or those people are each day. Focus on them. I’d love to hear more about your comment “adding mindfulness to employee selection via screening”. What do you mean, how could this be done? (By the way…what have you learnt from Ciarrochi’s MAPP work that could be relevant here?)

Thanks MJ, that powerful opening question is what actually has happened in some conversations with people. They are weakened by the undervaluing of the thing they are best at because it’s considered to be ‘fluffy’. I hope Adam Grant’s work can help them.

Lisa, that’s great to hear! There is an increasing number of organisations creating ‘giving’ programs and foundations which includes giving time and money. What Adam Grant might be likely to suggest is that your employees and organisation connect directly to the recipients e.g. invite the beneficiaries into your organisation to explain how the giving is having an impact on their lives. In this way, there becomes a direct link between giver and receiver and boosts benefits for all involved. Let us know if you do this and what happens!



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