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ALL IN THE FAMILY

Why givers win

My friend Wes feels that his brother Joe is too big-hearted to head their family firm. Business is supposedly cutthroat; givers are liked but not respected.

If business is viewed as zero-sum, one wins at the expense of the other. “Whether it’s a company with forced ranking systems, a group of firms vying to win the same clients, or a school with required grading curves and more demand than supply for desirable jobs, it’s only natural to assume that peers will lean more toward taking than giving,” says Wharton professor Adam Grant in his book “Give and Take.”

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Wes fears that Joe is often taken advantage of, a fear so common that Cornell economist Robert Frank says, “By encouraging us to expect the worst in others it brings out the worst in us: dreading the role of the chump, we are often loath to heed our nobler instincts.”

“Joe wastes his time fixing others’ problems,” says Wes.

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I tell him about Australian financial adviser Peter Audet, whose firm works with high-net-worth clients. A scrap metal worker called the firm, only to be ignored by all except Audet. Audet visited him, and far from being a peon, the client had a lucrative business, whose fees multiplied a hundredfold the year after.

“I start[ed] out by doing kindness,” Audet told Grant. “The next day, I had to laugh at my colleague who wasn’t prepared to give a bit by driving out to visit him.”

Grant divides people into takers, matchers, givers. We dislike ruthless takers, such as those who exploit others even in a pandemic. But most people are matchers who believe that, “if you scratch my back, then I’ll scratch yours.”

Takers and matchers give strategically, expecting personal returns, targeting those who can help them. Takers are despised, and in this age of social media, Grant believes in karma.

Why not be matchers? Family members often insist on fairness in business. So why do givers triumph?

Even with reciprocity, “people on the receiving end often feel like they’re being manipulated,” says Grant. “When favors come with strings … the interaction can leave a bad taste.”

Matchers have smaller networks than givers, because they “limit themselves to deals in which their immediate benefit is at least as great as the benefits for others,” says LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. “If you insist on a quid pro quo every time you help others, you will have a much narrower network.”

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Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter compared strong ties (close friends and colleagues) and weak ties (casual acquaintances) in people who recently changed jobs. Nearly 17 percent got their jobs from strong ties, but almost double (28 percent) from weak ties.

“Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know about the same opportunities as we do,” says Grant. “Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.”

Takers and matchers find it difficult to get help from weak ties, but givers get “the best of both worlds: the trust of strong ties coupled with the novel information of weak ties.”

In 2011, software engineer Adam Rifkin had the most LinkedIn connections to Fortune Magazine’s powerful people lists, more than the tech titans. He told Grant, “If you’re going to get tens of millions of people using your software, you really should do something meaningful, something that changes the world. Frankly, I would like to see more people helping other people.”

Rifkin created 106 Miles to help entrepreneurial engineers like Evan Williams, who would cofound Twitter. Jessica Shambora of Facebook says that Rifkin is the “consummate networker,” since “his heart is in the right place.”

Very few of the people Rifkin helped will return the favor. But they are more prone to pass it forward. “This increases the odds that the people in his vast network will seek to add value rather than trade value, opening the door for him and others to gain benefits from people they’ve never helped—or even met … Rifkin transforms giving from a zero-sum loss to a win-win gain.”

Next week: Giving wisely

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada, or the e-book on Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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