Chances are, you know someone who abides by the great therapy culture principle: What about my needs?
Somehow or other, after thousands of years of human civilization we have arrived at a principle that is self-obsessed, self-involved and downright selfish.
Score one for the therapy culture.
Ethical thinkers have always emphasized the value of doing good for others. The Bible tells us to do unto others as you would have others do unto you; Aristotle counsels benevolence; Confucius speaks of the value of magnanimity; John Kennedy exhorted Americans to ask what they could do for their country.
Extending a hand of friendship is always a good thing. In Zen Buddhism, it’s called: the sound of the one hand clapping. It is surely better than a fist of defiance or aggression. It doesn’t always work out for the best, but more often than not it does.
If you are married, your job is to make your spouse happy. Your spouse’s job is to make you happy. You are both in the business of ensuring mutual happiness and domestic harmony because your children depend on it, you community depends on it and your ability to function in the outside world depends on it.
Anyone who starts whining about “my needs” has probably had too much therapy. .
Today, the New York Times Magazine offers a fascinating portrait of a Wharton professor named Adam Grant who has not only made giving selflessly a way of life but has taught the theory, done the research and written a book about the topic.
Grant suggests that we are more happy and more productive when we give and contribute than when we see ourselves pursuing mere self-interest.
We work more effectively when we see our work in a larger context. If we believe that our colleagues need us to do a good job, that our family is depending on us to succeed, that our customers would suffer if we do shoddy work… we will work harder, longer and more effectively.
Susan Dominus summarizes Grant’s idea in the Times:
The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.
Grant works in a field that has been thoroughly neglected by the therapy culture: motivational psychology.
Dominus offers an example that tends to demonstrate Grant’s point:
In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.
Clearly, this is an important problem. It requires a solution. Grant seems to have discovered one way—surely not the only way—to motivate hospital staff in the right direction.
Obviously, he has his detractors. Dominus quotes one:
Jerry Davis, a management professor who taught Grant at the University of Michigan and is generally a fan of his former student’s work, couldn’t help making a pointed critique about its inherent limits when they were on a panel together: “So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?”
This feels like a devastating counterargument. It isn’t.
We do not know whether Grant’s idea would improve worker morale at the Foxconn plant because, I suspect, it has never been tried.
Davis takes for granted that worker suicides have been caused by heartless managers forcing employees to perform mindless repetitive work under less than humane conditions. This might be true. It might not be true. Unless we know something about the individuals who committed suicide it is difficult to draw a general conclusion.
And, it is altogether possible, though not very Kantian, that Grant’s motivational technique works in some but not all situations.
Besides, there’s more to benevolence than giving a pep talk about happy customers. A benevolent employer does try to create work conditions that maximize performance and productivity.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review Grant describes the relevant research findings:
Consider a landmark meta-analysis led by Nathan Podsakoff, of the University of Arizona. His team examined 38 studies of organizational behavior, representing more than 3,500 business units and many different industries, and found that the link between employee giving and desirable business outcomes was surprisingly robust. Higher rates of giving were predictive of higher unit profitability, productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction, along with lower costs and turnover rates. When employees act like givers, they facilitate efficient problem solving and coordination and build cohesive, supportive cultures that appeal to customers, suppliers, and top talent alike.
One reason that people do not all embrace Grant’s approach is that they fear being exploited.
Some people believe that human beings are exploiting machines who want nothing more than to use each other for their personal benefit. Give them an inch, the saying goes, and they will take an arm.
While it is true that some people will take advantage of our kindness and generosity, it is also true that if all your friends are more take than give, you should do a better job of choosing your friends.
It should be obvious that not everyone will respond positively to a gesture of friendship or benevolence. Yet, Grant’s technique allows you, economically, to differentiate between takers and givers.
The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.
No one imagines that every time you offer to help someone out or to do a favor you are going to receive recompense or even a thank you. But, most of the time you will, and even if you don’t you will easily know who is at fault.
What quality was most likely to lead people to over-give? In his Harvard Business Review article Grant says that it’s "empathy." What a surprise!
Giving involves a transaction; it means following a rule. It's not the same as following your bliss. When you overrule the rule by trying to feel everyone else’s pain, you are more likely to less judicious in your selections. If someone betrays your trust or fails to acknowledge your benevolence you are not obliged to feel what he feels or to excuse him because he's having a bad day.
Interestingly, Dominus describes Grant himself as something of a compulsive over-giver. He might be living proof of the fact that it is better to give too much than not to give at all. He hardly seems to be a victim of exploitation.
Yet, it is also true that if you give too much you might alienate the person who is receiving your largesse.
It is commonly accepted among those who study gift-giving that it is not necessarily a good thing to offer too much to people you do not know very well, if at all. And you should understand that giving too much will feel like a demand.
We are instinctively programmed to reciprocate generosity, so we should always try to keep our good deeds within the bounds of what another person can reasonably be expected to give back.
Human beings are not programmed to exploit each other—that’s a vile slander— but they are programmed to cooperate and to get along with each other.
Yet, Dominus arrives at an interesting point: what if Grant’s giving represents nothing more than a fear of disappointing other people.
In her words:
On the day I followed Grant as he hurried to his office hours at Wharton, I read something on his face that registered as more than just busyness; he seemed anxious. I wondered whether Grant was driven by the desire to help or a deep fear of disappointing someone.
But, how do you tell the difference. Doesn’t the therapy culture want us to think that behind every good deed lies a bad motive.
What is the practical consequence of thinking this way? If giving is a form of psychopathology then Grant should undergo some psychotherapy in order to get over his bad habit and to get back in touch with his basic greed.
Of course, we do not want to disappoint other people. It’s part of our connection to others; it’s part of what motivates us to do our best. It’s what you do when you have some self-respect and when you understand that your self-respect depends on the respect you show others.