What holds us back from being generous? We had posed this question in an earlier post, after sharing the positive impact of generosity. It may seem counterintuitive to ponder about it, because generosity is innate to human nature. However, not all of us trust our instincts. We often talk ourselves out of giving or volunteering. What makes us do that?

Exploring generosity in the context of workplaces, Prof. Adam Grant, Wharton School of Business, says, employees need to gain clarity on what generosity is and is not. That’s possible when they differentiate it from the following factors.

  1. Always putting others’ interests before ours, can make us less assertive about our own. Over time, that may even become the norm. This happens because people are more generous towards others, than themselves. Harvard professor Hannah Bowles conducted a study to validate this. She found that when negotiating salaries for themselves, people settled for 3% lesser pay, as compared to the average market rate. However, when negotiating on behalf of others, people finalized on salaries 14% higher than the market average! Thus, when people represent others, being assertive is completely consistent with their self-images as givers.

    For employees struggling with self-assertiveness, managers can coach them to advocate for people with whom they share common interests. And since generosity is contagious, both parties in that relationship will end up being generous to the other, instead of there being only one giver.

  1. One’s tendency to accommodate everyone, can leave their time at the mercy of takers. At one Fortune 500 company, a group of engineers worried that they were too generous. They would drop everything to help their colleagues, and this affected their own work. People fell behind schedules and worked themselves into burnout. This wasn’t sustainable. But most of the engineers knew that success depended on sharing expertise.

    Prof. Leslie Perlow, Harvard Business School, proposed a solution – setting aside windows during which people were not allowed to interrupt one another. Result: above-average productivity for 70% of them. The key is to set boundaries, and seek support when overwhelmed. Psychologist Vicki Helgeson says that’s a critical distinction between self-sacrificing givers and successful ones. Another tactic is to be known for offering a specific kind of help. Skill mastery would prevent people from piling on miscellaneous requests.

  1. The third factor is empathy. Though highly desirable, if a person is easily moved to spend time doing favors s/he cannot afford, s/he runs a risk of being exhausted and frustrated. How can managers help their employees avert this? Columbia psychologist Adam Galinsky says, by trying to focus on the real reason behind why someone is seeking assistance, instead of getting washed away by emotions.

    Managers can ask employees to gather information about a counterpart’s interests and to make a list of their own interests as well. From there, they can examine the overlap to generate ideas for offering help, such that it serves the needs of both parties.

Bill Gates said, “There are two great forces of human nature—self-interest, and caring for others.” Magic lies in the place they meet.

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