Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

churchill-lifegivingIn his wise and wonderful book Give and Take, Adam Grant talks about the upsides and downsides of being a generous person, or in Adam’s words, a giver. Givers naturally enjoy giving their ideas, help, and support freely and this helps them build goodwill which drives their success. But sometimes, givers can care too much for other people’s interests to the extent that they hurt themselves.

Adam recounts the story of Sameer, a new MBA graduate and giver, who found it hard to negotiate the terms of his offer with a prospective employer. Sameer says:

I felt awkward. I like my boss and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.

Sameer had always found negotiations difficult and had the reputation of being a pushover, caring too much about other people’s interests and sacrificing his own. But this time, Sameer negotiated increases in his total compensation to the tune of $70,000. How did he do it?  It turns out that Sameer adopted the role of an advocate for his family when negotiating, instead of negotiating for himself. He says:

As a giver, I feel guilty about pushing too much, but the minute I start thinking ‘I’m hurting my family, who’s depending on me for this,’ I don’t feel guilty about pushing for that side.

Adam says this strategy works because Sameer is doing what givers do naturally: advocating for other people’s interests. Intentionally advocating for his family, whose interests are aligned to his own, helped Sameer be more assertive in the negotiation, while being fair to his boss and company.

Since givers are deeply concerned about the well-being and interests of others, sometimes even more than their own, serving the interests of others is a strong driving force, even more than “what’s in it for me?”

I was blown away by Adam’s insight and struck by the power that thinking about others has for givers. While we saw how thinking about others helps givers protect their own interests in negotiations, I wondered if this strategy could be used in other situations. If so, what might these other situations be?

Here are two situations that I identified where other-interest can help givers: to aid their self-development and to further causes dear to them.

I’ve been working on my communication skills using Ramit Sethi’s How to Talk to Anybody course. Early on in the course, Ramit makes the point that having good communication skills is a service to other people. So, when you go and approach someone at a party or a networking dinner, you’re doing them a favor, because they’re probably as hesitant as you in making the first step. When you smile and make small talk with a barista, you’re brightening their otherwise mundane day. And this thinking about others can be a surprisingly strong motivator. When thinking about improving their communication skills for themselves, givers might be constrained by real factors  (e.g., an introvert may find small talk draining) and mental models (e.g., “I don’t have anything interesting to say.”) But when givers think about how their communication skills serve others, they may find themselves more motivated to develop themselves.

Similarly, an introvert may need to act in a more extroverted manner sometimes, says Susan Cain. But pretend extroversion can be hard and draining for introverts. Introverts are more willing to act in a more extroverted way to further a cause they care about. Thinking about how their furthering their cause helps others helps introverted-givers marshal resources to act more extroverted (for some time only: conditions apply!). Susan gives the example of Brian Little, the acclaimed, introverted professor and giver who has a very extroverted persona in the classroom. Little constantly monitors the audience and adjusts his speech accordingly, peppering anecdotes or facts depending on the response of the audience. Here’s what Susan says:

(Little)views self-monitoring as an act of modesty. It’s about accommodating oneself to situational norms rather than “grinding down everything to one’s own needs and concerns.” 

Little thinks about othershis studentsand self-monitors to further his causeeducating studentsthat he cares about deeply.

So, used in healthy way, their innate generosity can help givers help others AND help themselves.

What are some other ways that givers can use their inherent concern for other people to make positive changes in their life as well as the lives of others? Would love to hear your comments below!

You May Also Like
The Right Way to Give—A lesson by Adam Grant and Dr. Seuss
The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant

On a lighter note 🙂
Thinking of others

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8 thoughts on “Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

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