How To Be Giving But Not a Doormat

a month ago

“What if they hate me?”

“Why would they hate you? The reason they voted for you for president is that they DON’T hate you.”

“Yeah, but now I need to ‘act’ all presidential and stuff. Ugh! Why did I do this?!”

My 13-year-old daughter’s fears before her first Student Council meeting were not unlike the fears many women have. We believe we must act differently in a leadership role-saving our giving self for our personal lives and then turn around and act like a taker in our leading lives.

Why do we believe we must gather up the traits that got us where we are and throw them out the window?

Because once we get that promotion or title of leader, we incorrectly assume we need to turn into a "boss." Otherwise, we reason, we’ll be perceived as a doormat. A weak leader. Not a "BAWSE" (as my daughter's favorite YouTube star, Lilly Singh says)…but rather a mouse. Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take, believes it is a common misunderstanding due to people’s general perception of those we might classify as "givers." 

Grant identifies three personality types: Givers, Takers, and Matchers. Givers do more for others than they ask in return, Takers ask for more favors than they do for others, and Matchers are fond of tit for tat.

Interestingly, Grant was motivated to research these personality types because he felt his daughter and girls, in general, were more likely to be givers. He wanted to know: Was his daughter at a disadvantage in leadership roles?

He was concerned because the perception of a giver isn’t very flattering when it comes to leadership. “Look at any group of people you would characterize as givers. You’ll find some who are reluctant to advocate for their own interests, some who are willing to drop everything to help anyone at any time, and some who are easily manipulated by empathy,” says Grant.

These behaviors are not very leaderly. This is probably why my daughter felt she needed to morph herself into someone she wasn’t, sacrificing her true self and, potentially, her reputation in the process.

Grant cautions us, however, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Thankfully, in his research, he concludes, “None of these behaviors is a necessary condition for generosity.”

Yes, Grant and fellow researcher, Stanford professor, Frank Flynn, found that the least productive engineers and salespeople scored high on the giving spectrum. However, when they looked deeper into the data, they discovered that the most productive ALSO scored high on the giver spectrum!

So what gives? (pun intended). How is it that the lowest performing AND the highest performing employees were BOTH givers (vs. matchers or takers)?

The complication is that not all giver behaviors are created equal. We should all take comfort that generous leaders can win. We should also take caution in knowing doormats do not.

How do we become givers who win? The key is to avoid being manipulated.

Grant distinguishes between generosity and three other giver tendencies which contribute to being taken advantage of (ie. weak leadership)--timidity, availability, and empathy.

Here are Grant’s suggestions for maintaining your giver nature without succumbing to its dark side.

Timidity: Women are often socialized to be tentative, less visible, and apologetic. Research suggests that women can learn to be more comfortable, and successful, with self-advocacy when they can help others at the same time. To tap into this strength, Grant says the first step is to think of others who share your interests. This person or group of people will become the “beneficiary.” This could be a friend, a family member, classmates or colleagues. Once a recipient has is identified, you can begin advocating. For instance, my daughter was upset that a teacher assigned a test with only one day’s notice. Instead of approaching her teacher to protest on her own behalf, she decided to advocate for the whole class. She felt bolder and stronger, and less selfish when she believed she was helping others. Grant cites an example of a woman who wanted to be transferred to New York. Unfortunately, she knew that office was overstaffed. However, when she approached her boss on behalf of her entire family, she was able to find the courage she needed and achieved the transfer.

Availability: Grant says givers need to set boundaries instead of accommodating every request for help. The idea is to set limits on WHEN to help. Studies by the psychologists Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan show that when helping is based on a sense of mastery and personal choice rather than duty and obligation, it’s more likely to be energizing than exhausting. For instance, if you are too busy when a request comes in, instead of dropping your project to help this person, you can try to find another person who might be better suited to help--essentially delegating the request to another. In fact, one of the major differences between a self-sacrificing giver and a successful one is exactly this ability to seek help from others. Another successful approach is to pick what KIND of assistance you like to give and deferring the rest to others. Eventually, people will figure out where and when you enjoy helping.

Empathy: “Although it is an admirable trait and a source of much useful insight, [empathy] can make life harder for givers. If a busy person is easily moved by empathy to spend time doing favors he or she cannot afford, that person runs a serious risk of being manipulated by shrewd takers,” says Grant. Research by Columbia psychologist, Adam Galinsky, gives us a solution. His experiment showed that when people imagined what people were FEELING, they got steamrolled. When people, instead, THOUGHT about what people’s INTERESTS were they were more likely to create win-win solutions. It’s the old story of the two sisters fighting for the orange. If one sister had a more giving nature, felt sorry, and just gave in, there would be an imbalance in the relationship. However, if they had discussed why they each wanted the orange, they might discover that one desired the zest and the other the juice. Givers are excellent at understanding people’s thoughts and feelings. The trick is to focus on the thoughts rather than the feelings.

Givers tend to make better decisions because they are based on the benefit of the organization rather than personal ego. In fact, on the whole, researchers have concluded that women’s performance reviews increased when they acted more like givers. Givers are better team players. People like working with them and trust them. This is how they get ahead.

It's also why my daughter was voted into a leadership role. She’s a giver in the best sense. She can breathe a sigh of relief knowing she can and should continue her giving tendency in her new role. However, there is a way to do it that also maintains her credibility, strength, professionalism, AND backbone.

   •   When my daughter negotiates, she will need to pretend like she is doing it on behalf of a friend(s).

   •   She should trust but not be fooled by agreeableness. She tends to see the best in everyone, so she needs to avoid assuming everyone is trustworthy and set "helping" boundaries. 

   •   She must always keep her self-interest at heart by THINKING of others rather than FEELING for others.

It’s about striking the right balance. Being kind but not overly people-pleasing. Being considerate but not self-sacrificing. Tara Mohr, the author of Playing Big, says it’s “conveying likability in positive, not self-undermining ways.”

If you are a giver, it can get you ahead…or it can leave you behind. Trust. But verify.

-Laura

Originally published on LEADUP

For more posts by Laura Clydesdale visit her blog here or sign up for her newsletter. You can follow her on Twitter at @l_clydesdale and can be contacted at laura@lauraclydesdale.com.

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