(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

Over half of my career as a political scientist has included serving in organizational or institutional positions of leadership – treasurer, chair, director, dean.  I have found that my discipline has had much to offer in those experiences – the value of understanding how institutional/organizational structure, culture and purpose interact with each other and shape decisions.  Moreover, as a researcher in political psychology, I have found that applying knowledge of what “makes people tick” helps to promote constructive collective solutions, whether addressing a smaller scale need or a larger initiative. Thus, it came as little surprise when I came across a reference to Tocqueville in a recent work by organizational psychologist, Dr. Adam Grant.

In Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Grant takes the stereotype that “nice folks don’t get ahead” and turns it on its side.  Rather, in addition to traditional ideas about the value of “motivation, ability, and opportunity [for success]…[it] depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people” (3). Distinguishing between takers (who focus more on what they gain from situations and relationships), matchers (who look for even reciprocity in their work with others), and givers (who focus on how others benefit from our interactions), he finds that givers actually are more successful in the longer term.  (He characterizes success as a life of meaning and effective work).  In this finding, his argument and evidence harken back to Tocqueville’s assertion of the value of stepping outside of ourselves and our own circumstances, which improves not only the collective good but our own as well.

We may be very aware of our relationships, but yet relatively unaware of how our pattern of interactions with others shapes our lives.  Although sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and others have led to a more tangible visibility of networks, their existence has long preceded the internet and social media.  Observations on the social nature of humans stretch back at least as far as Aristotle (Politics) and are grounded in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – especially in their shared use of Genesis.  Unsurprisingly, we tend to leverage the strong ties- those people whom we know better and with whom we have enduring bonds.  But, Grant notes, two other sorts of ties can also be meaningful: weak and dormant. Weak ties involve individuals who are less likely to have the same central network and thus offer new ideas and opportunities; dormant ties, which while currently inactive, have a history of trust that allows for ease of contact (47-50).

Within the context of networks, givers enrich the good of others, and by extension, the larger whole.  Grant discusses the model of the “five-minute favor” that entrepreneur Adam Rifkin encourages in his network,  106 Miles; members seek to proactively offer assistance, building ties, and securing connections for the future (54-60).  This example, and other psychological research on the presence of giving members of a group, show that the actions can have ripple effects to give first and ask later.  (It also makes asking later easier!)  Moreover, the role of collaboration shows benefits in entertainment, education, medical, financial and other fields (Chapter 3).  The evidence is fairly compelling that giving matters to individuals and society.

Grant is quick to point out that being a giver does not involve being a martyr or putting yourself at the risk of burnout.  Rather, attending to others’ interests can involve “giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others” (5).  He is quick to point out the importance of supporting potential in others, first introduced as “growth mindset” by Carol Dweck (100). In addition, we must recognize that success involves repeated work at a goal, as supported by Angela Duckworth’s conception of “grit” (105).  Ultimately, recognizing these values in ourselves can help us burnish them in others.

Grant found some givers among the least successful individuals because they were so focused on tending to the needs of others that they did not accomplish their own tasks (5).  He asserts that attention to self and other are two distinct dimensions – it is possible to be low, high, or somewhere in between on both.  The givers who were not successful exhibit behaviors classified as “selfless givers” – who rate high on others’ interest and low on their own – are classified as “pathological altruism” – or, in other words, have unhealthy behaviors just as much as someone overly focused on oneself – even to the point of narcissism – might (157). Thus, successful givers are “otherish” – concerned about the well-being of self AND other.  In some ways, Grant’s assertions here are not new; Jewish theologian Martin Buber articulated his I-Thou framework, showing that the healthy person is one that values self AND other as worthy of concern.

Certainly givers can burn out, if they attend only to one dimension selflessly.  However, givers also may burnout because they are unable to help effectively; the perception of impact serves as buffer of stress in busier times (166).  (For more discussion on this relationship, see additional research on animals and humans in Chapter 18 of Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)  Moreover, how we give – whether professionally or through volunteer opportunities makes a difference in its effect.  Those who were “chunkers” – putting all their acts in a specified period – had better psychological and physical gains than sprinklers” who did the same level of giving across a longer period of time (170-173).  In fact, 100 hours per year of volunteering in a way that one finds energizing, building on our talents and purpose, seems to be the sweet spot between too much and too little (173-177).  In addition, we also need to see our own negotiations as self-advocacy (208).

By this point, especially for those familiar with Tocqueville’s work and followers of this blog series, you might anticipate the connecting point, but it is perhaps different than one might think!  Although Tocqueville critiques the dangers of individualism, as discussed in this previous post, he had a much more nuanced view of the motivations of the American people:

It is as often to be met with on the lips of the poor man as of the rich. In Europe the principle of interest is much grosser than it is in America, but at the same time it is less common, and especially it is less avowed; amongst us, men still constantly feign great abnegation which they no longer feel. The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the State. In this respect I think they frequently fail to do themselves justice; for in the United States, as well as elsewhere, people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses which are natural to man; but the Americans seldom allow that they yield to emotions of this kind; they are more anxious to do honor to their philosophy than to themselves. (Book 2, Section 2, Chapter VII, par. 3).

In other words, back then, Americans asserted self-interested motives at times when they actually were seeking to help others!

Research from more recent times shows that Americans still may be hiding their lights under a bushel.  People are likely to identify themselves as givers, and the larger society as self-interested. Thus, perceived social norms shape how people view themselves within society and how they present to others.  It has led to a tendency to convey self-interested motives for their efforts to avoid being seen as weak (240-243).  These findings offer more reasons to be generous in how we interpret the motives of others, especially absent strong evidence otherwise.

Give and Take offers compelling research – both in-depth examples and statistical findings – that is practical in its use (one of the facets I treasure about Adam Grant’s work in general).  Through it we learn more about the value of effective personal interaction that values others, allowing us to live more meaningful and impactful lives.  Grant’s work also complements well Daniel Coyle’s work in Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, which offers action steps to build belonging and effectiveness for those working with others for a larger goal.  I would also be remiss if I did not recommend Grant’s podcast series WorkLife, which addresses issues at individual and organizational levels.  Although I have stepped back from administration – at least for now – to refocus on the energy-giving experiences of teaching and writing, my experiences have indelibly impacted my work because of the way that I recognize the inherent relation between the individual and common good – whether in my institution, social groups or society at large.


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