Religion & Liberty Online

Generosity vs. Zero-Sum Thinking in the Workplace

Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to SuccessWhen discussing economics, we frequently encounter the zero-sum fallacy: the notion that the economic pie is fixed, that there is always a winner and a loser, and that, for someone to grow rich, another must become poor.

Yet in a market wherein rule of law, contracts, and property rights are properly established, the pie will surely grow. We are not static balls of flesh nestled comfortably in a static universe. We are spiritual beings made in the image of a creative God, and mutual trade and exchange help accelerate our efforts to create and collaborate alongside our neighbors. As Jay Richards notes, the uniqueness of the human person feeds into how economic value is actually determined.

But although we typically discuss the errors of such thinking in matters of basic material exchange, we should note that such a fallacy can just as easily filter into our broader social and spiritual activities in the workplace. Such limited thinking can trap us in a sort of self-centered tunnel vision, whether with our clients, co-workers, or competitors, leading us to assume that success cannot come if we allow any wiggle room for generosity, whether in basic service, various collaborations, or even end-game negotiations.

In an article for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith touches on these themes by highlighting a new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, wherein organizational psychological Adam Grant seeks to challenge such zero-sum thinking, arguing that by having a fuller, more healthy perspective of mutual gain, we can move forward together toward a more productive, more fulfilling economic and social environment.

To parse things out, Grant puts folks in three different categories: givers, takers, and matchers. As Smith summarizes:

Matchers reciprocate favors and good deeds tit-for-tat. Takers try to tilt the balance of a transaction in their own favor, hoping to get more than they give — the type of person who takes credit for someone else’s work. Givers are the opposite. Their hallmark is generosity. Crudely put, givers are focused on others, takers are focused on themselves, and matchers care above all about fairness.

The interesting part is that we tend to recognize the value of generosity in our personal relationships. “There is an extraordinary number of people who are in a giver mindset at home and a matcher or taker mindset in the work setting,” Grant says.

His research, however, indicates that this is a flawed way to approach things. “There is powerful evidence,” Grant continues, “that givers experience more meaning in their work than takers or matchers.”

Some examples, as summarized by Smith:

In one study, Grant and a colleague found that givers who were high school teachers were less vulnerable to stress and exhaustion if they saw the impact their giving was having on their students. Across four other studies, researchers found that giving time away — in the form of volunteering — makes people feel like they actually have more time than if they spent time on themselves, wasted time, or got a random bit of free time.

Not only does being a giver protect against stress, but it also has lasting benefits on well-being outside of work. In a study of 68 firefighters, Grant and a colleague found that those who helped others on the job felt happier at home at bedtime than those who did not. Interestingly, the increase in happiness from giving was delayed. The firefighters were not any happier at the end of the working day, but only after they had been at home for several hours.

Though tensions remain, we would do well to reorient our workplace thinking around love and sacrifice, avoiding overly simplistic and materialistic approaches to human relationships and wealth creation. Given that the primary purpose of work is service, we mustn’t let the mere presence of profit — a necessary and helpful component — lead us to believe that generosity is all of a sudden a throw-away.

Whether collaborating with co-workers, meeting the needs of clients, or innovating in a competitive environment, a generous spirit and gracious attitude is bound to lead to more fulfillment, more productivity, and likely more profits, for everyone involved.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.