One easy way to boost employees’ productivity: Give them opportunities to be generous

Model Niki Taylor thanks some of the blood donors who helped save her life.
Model Niki Taylor thanks some of the blood donors who helped save her life.
Image: AP/John Amis
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Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist—that means he studies how to assure that people are happy and productive at work—an exceptionally generous person, and, according to a long profile of him in the New York Times, easily the most productive researcher in his field. These things are linked.

In his new book, “Give and Take,” he describes a pile of research, much of it his own, showing that the way to motivate people, and especially employees, is to give them opportunities to give. It’s called prosocial motivation (doc), and according to one of Grant’s papers on the subject, it is “the desire to have a positive impact on other people, groups, and organizations.”

Here’s an example: Borders (a since-bankrupt US bookstore chain) let employees contribute to a hardship fund, to be doled out to any fellow employees who fell on hard times or had unexpected expenses (like a pregnancy). Incredibly, in this case it was the donors and not the beneficiaries of the fund whose commitment to their employer increased most. “As a result of gratitude to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities, they developed stronger affective commitment to the company,” Grant wrote of the result.

Anything a company does that connects employees to the people they’re helping appears to have this effect, and can even increase productivity. When Grant had the people who call alumni asking for donations talk to students whose scholarships were paid for by those donations, their productivity—as measured by the money they brought in—shot up.

Our prosocial impulse appears to be deeply rooted in our psychology. Grant divides the world into Givers, Matchers and Takers. Givers will give to anyone, Matchers give strategically, and Takers always make sure they get the best of any engagement. Givers tend to be both the most and the least successful people in an organization. Givers who succeed will give to other Givers and Matchers, but avoid Takers, while Givers who are doormats—well, you get the picture.

So how could Grant’s work apply to other businesses? It appears that it’s as simple as giving employees the opportunity to meet those whom their work benefits, or simply giving them new opportunities to give in the first place. Jobs demand so much of us already, it seems counter-intuitive that creating avenues for them to ask even more of us could actually boost morale and productivity. And yet, according to a pile of research by Adam Grant—himself a Giver par excellence—it does.