Adam Grant, just 31-years-old, is both the youngest and most highly rated professor at the Wharton School. But if you had to pinpoint the one thing that really sets him apart from the his colleagues, it would have to be his generosity. As we learn in this profile in the New York Times Magazine, whenever Grant has an opportunity to help someone, he does so. He gives advice to students and writes recommendations. He makes introductions. He collaborates and he critiques. And he does all of these things incessantly, with an almost superhuman gusto. It’s just the way he’s wired.
But Grant is also a leading researcher in the field of organizational psychology, where he studies, among other things, how being helpful, and feeling helpful, can benefit the rest of us. Here, the article recaps one of Grant’s most influential studies, in which he set out to do the impossible—to motivate call center workers:
The manager, Howard Heevner, did not have a lot of faith that Grant would be able to motivate his student-employees. He had already tried, in a previous job at a call center, the usual incentives — cash prizes, competitive games — and was generally unimpressed with the results. But Grant had a different idea. When he was an undergraduate at Harvard, he took a job selling advertisements for the travel guide series 'Let’s Go,' but he was terrible at it. 'I was a pushover,” he says in 'Give and Take,' 'losing revenues for the company and sacrificing my own commission.' Then he met another undergraduate whose job at 'Let’s Go’ was helping her pay her way through college. Suddenly the impact of his role became clear to him: without advertising revenues, the company could not make money, which in turn meant it couldn’t provide jobs to students who needed them. With that in mind, he was willing to make a harder sell, to take a tougher line on negotiations. 'When I was representing the interests of students, I was willing to fight to protect them,' he writes. It would not be a mass-market psychology book if every anecdote did not have a dramatic ending: Grant eventually sold the largest advertising package in company history and less than a year later, at 19, was promoted to director of advertising sales, overseeing a budget of $1 million.
As a psychology major, Grant always hoped to do a study on the 'Let’s Go’ staff, in which the books’ editors and writers would meet with or read letters by people whose travels had been enhanced by their work. Would knowing how the books benefited others inspire them to work harder? Now, at the call center, Grant proposed a simple, low-cost experiment: given that one of the center’s primary purposes was funding scholarships, Grant brought in a student who had benefited from that fund-raising. The callers took a 10-minute break as the young man told them how much the scholarship had changed his life and how excited he now was to work as a teacher with Teach for America.
The results were surprising even to Grant. A month after the testimonial, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script. In a subsequent study, the revenues soared by more than 400 percent. Even simply showing the callers letters from grateful recipients was found to increase their fund-raising draws.
The study’s key insight was that giving workers a better sense of who their work was benefitting resulted in a significant uptick in productivity. But that’s just one big picture example. Grant thinks that the same thing holds true on a much smaller scale—like helping out when a colleague asks a favor. "In corporate America, people do sometimes feel that the work they do isn’t meaningful," he tells the Times. "And contributing to co-workers can be a substitute for that.” In a sense, you could say that what Grant is really doing here is validating the concept of karma. Doing good for others, he suggests, is good for you, too.
What also becomes clear throughout the article, however, is that Grant is a freak. He’s entirely selfless and utterly indefatigable, and you have to assume all that giving would grind any regular person down to dust. Not to mention that at some point, helping everyone else has to come at the expense of getting your own work done.
Still, as you go through your day, keeping Grant in mind can’t be a bad thing. Even if you don’t believe that doing someone a favor will tip the cosmic scales in your direction, his research shows how you can end up getting something in return. And hey, if a heightened sense of helpfulness can work for those poor unfortunate souls in the call center trenches, surely it can work for you too.
[Image: Hand with Help via Shutterstock]