Pay It Forward: The Importance of Building a Corporate Culture of Givers

by Saba Software | Posted | Career Management

Pay It Forward: The Importance of Building a Corporate Culture of Givers

In the 2000 film, Pay it Forward, a social studies teacher (Kevin Spacey) gives his junior high school class a rather cool assignment - think of an idea that will change the world for the better. When eleven and a half year old Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) creates a plan for "paying forward" favors, he sets in motion an unprecedented wave of good-will, which blossoms into a nationwide phenomenon.

If you've seen the movie, you might agree it's a little sappy. But it does get the point across.

By paying forward kindness, we have the power to make the world a better place.

Does this apply to the work world too?

The paying-it-forward payoff

Okay, so let's take a look at paying it forward in the workplace. Can creating a workplace culture of givers (pay-it-forwarders is too awkward to say) impact organizational success? If so, what's the payoff?

In her Harvard Business Review article, "The Paying-It-Forward Payoff," author Gretchen Gavett explains:

"Most of us are familiar with direct reciprocity - the idea that people respond to kind actions directed toward them with other kind actions. But generalized reciprocity - ‘you help me and I help someone else,' can be a bit trickier to measure."

In the article, Gavett goes on to describe two types of generalized reciprocity as identified by Researchers Wayne E. Baker, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and Innovation Places' Nathaniel Bulkley:

  • Paying it forward: People's motivations are driven by positive affect ("You help me, and I feel grateful, so I pay it forward by helping a third party").
  • Rewarding reputation: Helping others is driven by strategic action and intentional reputation building.

In an experiment designed by Baker and Bulkley, MBA students were required to post five questions to a group message board and respond to 15 such requests from others. This was worth 10 percent of their grade. Here's the interesting part - those who went above and beyond the quota would not receive extra credit.

Results showed that the more responses posted to the message board in total, the higher the probability a group member would respond to another's brand new post. This supports the hypothesis that the more help a person receives from others, the more likely that person is to help someone else.

The researchers also found that the more responses a person wrote in the week before making a request of his own, the more likely others were to answer his question. This supports the idea that helping others will make it more likely that they themselves will receive help.

Will similar "giving" behavior yield similar results in the workplace? If the behavior is supported and reinforced as part of workplace culture, the answer is yes.

Some insights about givers

Adam Grant, author of "Give and Take" and a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, identifies three kinds of people:

  • Takers - People who always try to get as much as possible from others.
  • Matchers - Individuals who, if they do you a favor, expect one back (and vice versa)
  • Givers - People who go out of their way to support and help you, no strings attached

So, this begs the question, which kind of person is the most successful in the workplace?

The takers.


The matchers.

Guess again.

Well, by process of elimination, that leaves the givers.

According to Grant, it's the givers (the people who genuinely give to benefit others) who are ultimately the highest performers - and the most successful.

Grant says, "Although some givers get exploited and burn out, the rest achieve extraordinary results across a wide range of industries." In his book, Grant explains why some givers sink to the bottom while others rise to the top, and argues that we underestimate the success of givers. He points out that givers are able to succeed in ways that lift others up.

The question is, how can organizations nurture this culture of giving in the workplace - a culture that drives higher individual, team and organizational performance?

Tips for managers on developing a pay-it-forward team

Here are a few tips that can help you encourage "giving" or "paying it forward" in your team.

Tip 1:

Use coaching conversations to bring attention to examples of employees "paying something forward" and how these behaviors reinforce core competencies such as "bias to action" or "customer service excellence." This will foster a culture of giving and help employees see how their giving helps others and the organization as a whole.

Example: Comment on the interaction/behavior you observed and how it supports a giving culture. e.g. "The knowledge and expertise you shared with our new employee helped them come up to speed faster and start contributing to our success as a business faster. Well done!"

Tip 2:

Give of your time to provide regular feedback and coaching. This is a different type of giving that demonstrates an interest and investment in the employees' career development.

Schedule weekly one-on-one meetings with employees to discuss performance, provide feedback and discuss career aspirations. These meetings don't have to be huge time-gobblers, just brief touch points to check in, offer advice and discuss any perceived challenges.

Tip 3:

Avoid "giver" burnout. Sometimes individuals who give the most tend to burn out the fastest. The best way to help the givers on your team avoid burnout is to coach and guide them on how to set boundaries. Further, discuss the impact of constantly giving and not accepting help.

Example: According to Grant, it's important to work with givers to help them set clear boundaries and determine: "Okay, how am I going to help most of the people most of the time." Individuals at the giving end of the spectrum won't feel they have to drop everything (at the expense of their own deadlines) to help others.

Further, if you have an employee who continuously goes out of the way to help others, but won't accept help, use coaching and development conversations to point out the personal and organizational risks (burnout, isolation, decrease in collaborative culture and productivity).

Building a corporate culture of givers

If you were to hazard a guess, where do you think you would fall on the spectrum? Giver, taker or matcher?

Regardless of where any of us fall, it's important to recognize that we all have the capacity to "give" and as a result, make our work environments richer, healthier and more productive.

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