Why speaking nice takes you further (and other principles of leadership)

Proverbs 16:24  Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. 

Proverbs 16:24  Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. 

Time is getting away from me and before you know it, the library truck is going to roll up again and I'm going to have to return Wonder-book Give and Take by organisation psychologist Adam Grant, so that other people can read and ponder on its riches.

All of which means this: I'd better tell you what's in the book before it's too late.

Here, I wrote about the happy fact that, contrary to popular perception, givers do better than takers in business. For me, it was a buzz to see that the biblical principles of love and generosity actually pay off in the marketplace.

But there's more.

We all agree that it's important to pick out and encourage kids (and adults) with potential. Individuals who are mentored and encouraged to do well at what they are talented in usually do amazingly well. But how do you spot potential? How do you know if someone has talent? 

Answer: mostly, you don't. 

In one study, selected students were picked out, apparently according to IQ testing, and labelled 'bloomers'. Those children showed massive gains in their school work in that year and for the next several years. What their teachers didn't know was that the selection was random. The children weren't 'smarter' than the rest. But in believing that they were, the teachers created self-fulfilling prophecies.

"When teachers believed their students were bloomers, they set high expectations for their success. As a result, teachers engaged in more supportive behaviours that boosted confidence and enhanced learning and development," writes Adam Grant. The teachers communicated more with the bloomers, challenged them more and gave them more feedback.

And the children bloomed.

In lots of ways, natural talent is irrelevant to future success. Of course, it can help, but it's not just about that. Interest alone is an excellent marker. And even interest can be cultivated with the help of a supportive, encouraging mentor - a 'giver'. 

In my own life, this has been proved true. At high school I was rubbish at wood shop. We made a breadboard each. Mine was blah. I was bored. Breadboards? Really?  Who cared? Not me.

Twenty years later, I wanted a cubby house for my children. They cost more money than I had so I decided to build one. Interest. My neighbour helped me figure it all out and showed me what to do. Mentoring. The whole thing turned out pretty well. A lot better than my breadboard. Voila. The power of givers succeeds again.

There's even more. (Steak knives, anyone??)

You'd think, wouldn't you, that people who speak boldly and with great authority get more done than the quieter-voiced, more modest-type folks amongst us. But apparently, it isn't necessarily so.

"Givers instinctively adopt a powerless communication style that proves surprisingly effective in building prestige," writes Adam. 

Givers value the perspectives and interests of others; they ask more questions than give answers; they admit their weaknesses rather than display strengths; they seek advice more than impose their views. 

If givers aren't competent, showing vulnerability won't help them. If they are, however, it makes them seem approachable instead of distant or superior.

And simply asking questions is more important than you might think. Takers try to change people's minds by bombarding them with arguments. But "the art of advocacy is to lead you to my conclusions on your terms".  Even just by asking people questions about their plans and intentions, we increase the likelihood that they will act on their plans and intentions.

Talking tentatively and giving signals that you're open to other ideas and advice can be used effectively in leadership, but more so if your team is proactive already. If your team is passive and used to following it won't work as well as speaking dominantly. 

One more. Just one more.

If you're a giver, you're probably well aware of the concept of 'burnout'. You give too much. It's unsustainable. You fall, weeping, exhausted and under-nourished in a quivering heap, on your sofa, good for only one thing: watching re-runs of Arrested Development, or anything by Ben Stiller. Anything, just so long as I don't have to give any more, you say.

If givers are supposed to do so well, what's happening with burnout? Where's the answer to over-giving? Who's going to stop us from killing ourselves by kindness?

The answer is two-fold.

First, givers do best when they also give to their own dreams and lives as well as the dreams and lives of other people. When they have enough sense of 'self' that they don't get swallowed up by needs, they can manage. When they're living other people's lives for them, they die. Prioritising what and how you give will help.

Grant gave the example of an executive who wanted to give advice to newcomers to the company but when she found herself say the same things to different individuals time after time, she asked them to join her in a group setting, saving her time which she could use on other things.

Second, givers do best when they can give biggish chunks of time to something that they can see results from. Spreading the giving out into little bits and pieces and giving to something that is never finished or successful is way less fulfilling than doing your generosity in one big hit, and picking something that will show some sort of success - at some point.

Grant used the example of a young teacher in a tough school. She was a giver and wanted to make a difference, but it was hard to see exactly what she was achieving day in and day out at school, dealing with behavioural issues and bureaucracy all the time. Burn out was setting in but rather than giving up, she gave more - this time much of her Saturday to a mentoring program for higher achieving kids from poor backgrounds. The results were quicker and more intense and the teacher was rejuvenated to continue giving in the harder job..


Well, yes. Of course. There's so much in Give and Take but I'm out of time and space. You'll have to head to the library van and pick it up for yourself. It's well worth the read and exciting to see how the giving principle and the concept of generosity really do work.