The Business Case For Being Nice

A book argues that selflessness is the secret to success.

By Bryant Urstadt


For years, business books have advised executives as if they were warriors about to fight to the death in the Colosseum. White-collar workers on commuter trains study the ruthless secrets of Jack Welch, the tactics in The Art of War, and ninja techniques in The 48 Laws of Power. Wharton professor Adam Grant wants to stand the genre on its head, arguing in Give and Take that the most successful people aren’t take-no-prisoners types, but those who selflessly give the most. Instead of monetizing contacts, time, information, or access, Grant suggests that if one just gives it all away, it will be returned in heartwarming multiples.

In Grant’s examples, giving can get you elected president: Abraham Lincoln selflessly withdrew from a Senate race in the 1830s but won the support of his opponent in the next election. Giving can also make you rich, as in the case of venture capitalist David Hornik, whose generosity with competitors helped him gain access to the best startups. Other prolific givers include Jon Huntsman Sr., who once left $200 million on the table when negotiating with a man whose wife had just died — because it was the right thing to do.

No business book is complete without a few made-up buzzwords, and Grant doesn’t disappoint, dividing people into takers, who look out for themselves exclusively; matchers, who operate on a one-for-one basis; and givers, who part with whatever is asked of them and seek nothing in return. Grant’s realistic about the challenges these givers face. They can turn into doormats, and he’s careful to build a worldview that takes into account the unexceptional and sometimes tragic ends of people who give without regard to themselves. (Think of The Giving Tree, the ending of Braveheart, or that really sweet guy a few cubicles down who’s always in a good mood but never gets promoted.)

Grant advances the notion of the self-interested giver, who’s generous in a way that’s beneficial to everyone, including herself. Grant’s a professor at a business school, so it’s no surprise that Give and Take is just brimming with studies proving his points. They amaze and instruct and definitely make one wonder if higher education is perhaps overstaffed. There are the professors who looked at a hundred annual reports to identify narcissistic chief executive officers and gauge their effect on the performance of a company. (Turns out, the bigger a CEO’s photograph, the more dysfunctional his company.) There are studies about how givers are more comfortable delegating tasks and how doing one favor for someone makes you more likely to do another. One report found that negotiators who think carefully about the other party’s interests tend to make more profitable deals. Yet another concluded that those who asked board members for advice about getting onto boards were more likely to get a seat than those who simply asked if they could have a seat.

Give and Take is thoughtful and well-researched. If there’s anything wrong with it, it’s that it’s too long and veers into an unintended parody of the thinkfluencer’s style. A typical sentence: “Becoming a doormat is the giver’s worst nightmare, and I’ll make the case that an otherish approach enables givers to escape the trap of becoming too trusting by becoming highly flexible and adaptable in their reciprocity styles.” Give and Take, nonetheless, is a book that means something. It may not be the King James Bible or even that Haley Joel Osment classic, Pay It Forward, but it still offers a map for a pretty good way to work.


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