This post was written by David Sloan Wilson, a contributor to Forbes.com.
The business world is often depicted as a gladiatorial contest where only the selfish survive. If that’s what you think, then Wharton professor Adam Grant’s Give and Take is the next book for you. It is subtitled A Revolutionary Approach to Success, which might seem like publishing hype, but the message of Grant’s book is indeed revolutionary when seenagainst the background of a worldview that is common in some parts ofthe business world.
Think of the people you work with. Some are probably total sweeties, while others are only out for themselves. Why such individual differences? Why isn’t everyone nice or nasty to an equal degree? This is an evolutionary question. If we think of niceness and nastiness as alternative social strategies that compete against each other, it turns out that either one can win depending upon the circumstances. People who employ nasty strategies succeed by preying upon people who employ nice strategies. People who employ nice strategies succeed by banding together to share their beneficence and avoiding people who employ nasty strategies. It’s that simple.
The eternal conflict between nasty and nice social strategies takes place in all social species, not just humans. And the eternal conflict drives cultural evolution in addition to genetic evolution. Genetic evolution has endowed some of us with a greater capacity for niceness than others, but it has endowed most of us with an ability to choose to be nasty or nice, depending upon the circumstances. Our decision to be nasty or nice in a given situation (which might not be conscious) is roughly comparable to what would evolve by genetic evolution in the same situation, given enough time.
In the scientific literature, niceness is called prosociality—any attitude, behavior, or social institution oriented toward the welfare of others or society as a whole. It turns out that prosociality is like a magic elixir, especially when it is imbibed from childhood. People raised in highly prosocial environments develop multiple assets, thriving as individuals in addition to helping others. People raised in the absence of prosociality develop multiple deficits, including antisocial behavior, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and depression. Arguably the single most important policy prescription in everyday life is to increase the expression of prosociality (go here and here for some of the scientific evidence).
When we are mindful of the vulnerability of niceness to the depredations of nastiness, however, increasing prosociality must be handled with care. You shouldn’t convert someone to niceness and turn them loose in a nasty world. This would be like declawing an alley cat and sending it back into the alley. Converts to niceness must be connected to others who are employing nice strategies, or else they will be victimized and will perish if they don’t revert back to nastiness for their own preservation.
So much for everyday life—how about the business world? That’s where Adam Grant’s Give and Take comes in. Many people implicitly think that niceness is a virtue for the rest of life, but when it comes to playing business hardball, only the selfish survive. The message of Grant’s book is that this isn’t true, and he gives us both scientific evidence and entertaining profiles for understanding why. Grant divides people into three behavioral categories: givers, matchers, and takers. As their names imply, givers are sweeties who unstintingly share their time and talent, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it. Matchers calibrate their giving to their taking and takers take whatever they can get. Who does best playing business hardball? It turns out that the givers do best and worst. When they succumb to the depredations of takers, they become doormats and chumps. But when they manage to work with other givers, they produce spectacular wealth and share the collective benefits. In other words, the costs and benefits of prosociality in the business world are no different than for the rest of life.
In the first post of our Darwin’s Business blog, we observed that ideology is a lens that colors what we see. The ideology that makes Ayn Rand such an enduring influence portrays selfishness as a virtue and makes giving look like a weakness. In Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged, the word “give” is even banned from the vocabulary of John Galt’s utopian community.
This worldview is part of the air that is breathed in business environments, regardless of whether it comes from Rand or some other source. In a video interview with one of us (David S. Wilson), Grant said that Wharton students are constantly coming into his office expressing a desire to give, which they assume must be suppressed in their business lives until they make a fortune. Only then can they express their desire to give by becoming philanthropists.
If that’s the way that business school students think, then the message of Grant’s book is indeed revolutionary. We need to exchange lenses to see that giving can succeed as a business strategy from day one, as long as givers can keep their distance from takers. Businesses flourish when they create social environments that allow niceness to generate value, thereby winning the Darwinian contest.