Why Disagreeable Givers Always Get Ahead and Finish First... a la Adam Grant
This is a good and well-written article on why and how it pays to have range in your social behaviors and how to contextualize that range for personal success with monotonous regularity... or mastery.
Plenty of Give and Take featured here in consanguinity with Adam Grant's earlier findings... except that what's also explored in detail here is how and when being an asshole works and why.
I first heard about this article from @adamrifkin :
Loooong article but this passage was key to me:
Isolating the effects of taker behavior on group welfare is exactly what van Kleef, the Dutch social psychologist, and fellow researchers set out to do in their coffee-pot study of 2012.
At first blush, the study seems simple. Two people are told a cover story about a task they’re going to perform. One of them—a male confederate used in each pair throughout the study—steals coffee from a pot on a researcher’s desk. What effect does his stealing have on the other person’s willingness to put him in charge?
The answer: It depends. If he simply steals one cup of coffee for himself, his power affordance shrinks slightly. If, on the other hand, he steals the pot and pours cups for himself and the other person, his power affordance spikes sharply. People want this man as their leader.
I related this to Adam Grant. “What about the person who gets resources for the group without stealing coffee?” he asked. “That’s a comparison I would like to see.”
It was a comparison, actually, that van Kleef had run. When the man did just that—poured coffee for the other person without stealing it—his ratings collapsed. Massively. He became less suited for leadership, in the eyes of others, than any other version of himself.
Grant paused a quarter of a beat after I told him that. “What I would love to see,” he said, “is the repeated version of that experiment.” Time frames, he stressed, were important. Evidence suggests that “it takes givers a while to shatter this perception that giving is a sign of weakness. In a one-shot experiment, you don’t get to see any of that.”
In another study, from the world of shopping, you do get to see it. And it’s where the advantage to being a heel begins to look a lot more limited.
wait, so he had to steal a cup for himself and the other guy to be considered a leader?
but providing his own coffee and sharing it, rather than stealing, made him less likeable?
That unfortunately is correct. Messed up, isn't it?
“This was an issue I struggled with while writing” Give and Take, Adam Grant told me. “I think it is hard to change.” That said, Grant continued, most people switch between styles depending on context. “Most people are givers with friends and family” but tend to match their colleagues’ behavior at work. “I think that changing people’s style is less about teaching them an entirely new mode of operating than getting them to realize, oh, this mode you use in one domain can be imported into another.”
Being a jerk is likely to fail you, at least in the long run, if it brings no spillover benefits to the group; if your professional transactions involve people you’ll have to deal with over and over again; if you stumble even once; and finally, if you lack the powerful charismatic aura of a Steve Jobs. (It’s also marginally more likely to fail you, several studies suggest, if you’re a woman.) Which is to say: being a jerk will fail most people most of the time.
Yet in at least three situations, a touch of jerkiness can be helpful. The first is if your job, or some element of it, involves a series of onetime encounters in which reputational blowback has minimal effect. The second is in that evanescent moment after a group has formed but its hierarchy has not. (Think the first day of summer camp.) The third—not fully explored here, but worth mentioning—is when the group’s survival is in question, speed is essential, and a paralyzing existential doubt is in the air. It was when things got truly desperate at Apple, its market share having shrunk to 4 percent, that the board invited Steve Jobs to return (Jobs then ousted most of those who had invited him back).
My favorite part of the article:
Which leads us back to Steve Jobs.
Yes, he brought great spoils to a great many groups. And yes, he hurt a lot of people while doing that. What most everyone can agree on, though, is that Jobs was an outlier. As Stanford’s Robert Sutton points out, “If we copied every habit of successful leaders, we’d all be drinking Wild Turkey, like Southwest Airlines’ co-founder Herb Kelleher.”
So to anyone out there still wondering, here’s your permission slip: you do not have to be like Steve. When Isaacson, his biographer, was asked by a 60 Minutes interviewer about Jobs’s failings, he replied, “He could have been kinder.” Grant adds, “How do we know he succeeded because of his asshole behaviors … and not in spite of them?” Indeed, a more recent biography of Jobs, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, argues that Jobs matured during his time away from Apple, and was much more modulated in his behavior—giving credit when appropriate, dispensing praise when warranted, ripping someone a new one when necessary—during the second (and more successful) half of his career.
Without that kind of modulation—without getting a little outside our comfort zone, at least some of the time—we’re all probably less likely to reach our goals, whether we’re prickly or pleasant by disposition.
As Grant himself puts it, “What I’ve become convinced of is that nice guys and gals really do finish last.”
He believes that the most effective people are “disagreeable givers”—that is, people willing to use thorny behavior to further the well-being and success of others. He points out that some of the corporate cultures we consider most “cutthroat” likely are filled not with jerks but with disagreeable givers. Take General Electric, once famed for its “rank and yank” policy of jettisoning the bottom 10 percent of performers each year. “I thought that on face value, GE might be a place where you would expect takers to rise. But it seems more complicated than that,” Grant says. “The people are really tough there in the sense that they’re going to challenge you to grow and develop, they’re going to set higher goals for you than you would set for yourself. But they’re doing it to make you better and they’re doing it with your best interests and the company’s best interests in mind.” Grant adds: “The hardest thing that I struggle to explain to people is that being a giver is not the same as being nice.” When I thought back to some of the most compelling people I’ve interviewed in business, Grant’s words rang true. Intel’s Andy Grove immediately came to mind. Ask Grove a dumb question, I once learned, and he’ll tell you it’s not the right question. He’s the one who largely built Intel’s culture of what the company calls “constructive confrontation,” in which you challenge ideas, but not the people who expound them. It’s not personal. He just wants his point to be understood. The result is that you do your homework. You come prepared.
The distinction that needs to be made is this: Jerks, narcissists, and takers engage in behaviors to satisfy their own ego, not to benefit the group. Disagreeable givers aren’t getting off on being tough; they’re doing it to further a purpose.
So here’s what we know works.
Smile at the customer. Take the initiative. Tweak a few rules. Steal cookies for your colleagues. Don’t puncture the impression that you know what you’re doing. Let the other person fill the silence. Get comfortable with discomfort. Don’t privilege your own feelings. Ask who you’re really protecting. Be tough and humane. Challenge ideas, not the people who hold them. Don’t be a slave to type. And above all, don’t affix nasty, scatological labels to people.
Adam, if I could gut and clean a fish as fast as you do it to tl:dr articles I'd buy more whole fish. And I do buy whole fish, and fully read tl:dr articles, just not as often as I used to... I really enjoyed reading this entire article... and you've done a good job on filleting it. :)
Thanks Rob. I've been practicing for years.
Not quite at 10,000 hours yet so I'm gonna get even better, I hope! :)
Yay! I love love!
Meh, it's a vague word when you get down to it. Does it mean smile sincerely and be polite when you stick the knife in and fire someone; does it mean to be permissive and accepting of people's wants and desires... what is nice anyway?
Accepting the lack of precision, it looks like being nice helps sometimes in startups, but perhaps not always – depending on what you're after. I always question the use of prescriptive personal dispositions on a case by case basis depending upon outcomes sought and current conditions encountered. And startups are quite variable, as we know, so... meh.
I'm currently invested in a startup where one of the co-founders is exceptionally nice and accommodating and he has built a great working culture and environment at the NewCo – yay! – but product shit ain't getting done with those nice bankers hours and voluntary breaks (I so wanted to write "just" in this sentence) – boooooo!
So acting less than "nice" from time to time can be better for all concerned too (that disagreeable giver thing, I'm guessing), depending on circumstances and achievements sought...
Adam, I've a couple questions you might know about all the unicorns out there, on a rough estimate basis:
1). What's was the ratio of "arrogant douchebags to play nice folks" among all founders in the highest performing, financially successful startup companies?
2) How many unicorns replaced founders along the way to their success and what type leadership dispositions did they trade up to employ, e.g. douchebag for bigger or lesser douchebag, nice guy for more or less nice guy, etc.
Curious if there's been a real look at these type founder dispositions in those companies that succeed well beyond just beating up on Steve Jobs as poster child for playing not so nice at work and our best contemporary cautionary tale for the startup ecosystem... sounds like most of what we're talking about at the valued, high-performing end of the startup success spectrum is anecdotal and speculative?
No company that's succeeding replaces the person at top, regardless of personality.
"Arrogant" and "Nice" are subjective terms, as you pointed out.
I've seen many a person described as confident when succeeding but arrogant when not.
My re-phrasing of one of the concluding paragraphs:
Being nice pays off in the long term in most relationships.
Three exceptions where "aggressive" behavior is beneficial in some way:
- One-time negotiation.
- Establishing leadership in the face of uncertainty.
- Dealing with the stress of survival-level emergency.
Thank you Dan for the summary!
Our formatter mangled your text because it wanted more carriage returns. Good times.
I do think being nice pays off long term. Short term is more complicated.
It seems like what he's saying culminates in the last couple paragraphs. That it works best to be a giver (not necessarily a nice guy/gal), and when the need arises (see Dan's exceptions above) be a "disagreeable giver"....meaning you're being jerky, but for the greater good rather than personal gain.
But you gotta love that at the end of an article filled with labels he says...don't label people, "It's a jerk move" haha.
It's better to label the behavior as jerky than the person as jerky.
Most people have the capacity to both behave like a jerk and not behave like a jerk.
Disagreeable givers help organizations but that does not mean they are necessarily pleasant to be with!