Adam Grant, Author of Give and Take, On Keys To Building KM Communities

Carla O'Dell's picture

On February 25, 2014 Carla O’Dell, CEO of APQC and knowledge management (KM) expert, led a conversation with Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of the best-selling Give and Take (A Revolutionary Approach to Success) and APQC’s KM Advanced Working Group. The following is a condensed version of that conversation about the implications of Dr. Grant’s book for KM. In part one of the interview Dr. Grant talks about how the right incentives drive the behavior you want in your KM Community.

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor and single highest-rated teacher at The Wharton School. His consulting and speaking clients include Google, the NFL, Goldman Sachs, Merck, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, and the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdamMGrant.

Dr. Carla O'Dell is CEO of APQC and considered one of the world’s leading experts in KM. 

If you want to learn more about how to improve communities of practice you can search our knowledge base.

CARLA O’DELL:  Adam, thank you for joining us. We have been discussing Give and Take and have several questions.  One premise of the book, supported by copious research and examples, is that people have three reciprocity styles: giver, matcher or taker. Most of us behave most of the time as matchers with giving and taking thrown in.  You also point out that, contrary to popular belief, givers often finish first.

We’ve been talking about what the implications of this are for knowledge management and have a few questions

ADAM GRANT:  First of all, thanks to all of you for reading.  I’m super excited to hear your questions and weigh in with thoughts.

CARLA:  For KM, the framework of giving, taking, and matching is central to the way communities of practice work, Adam.  If there aren’t enough givers, nothing gets contributed; nothing gets created.  If enough people are engaging in giving behavior, a community or network can thrive. This is probably true for the larger organization as well.  So how do we encourage that kind of behavior? You give lots of tips in your book. Have you come across some other interesting ways to reward and recognize giving behavior or givers in a public way?

ADAM GRANT:  It’s a great question.  I think the challenge that we’ve all struggled with is that is if you do too much rewarding and recognizing of givers, you basically incentivize takers to become better fakers.  You also encourage people to engage in forms of giving that are highly visible but not necessarily that valuable. 

I think by far the best mechanism, and this is a longer term mechanism, that I’ve seen is at Corning, the company that makes the Gorilla Glass for the iPhone and the iPad.  They have a program where you can become a Corning Fellow; it’s basically the highest honor that the company bestows.  Once you get there, you get two things that are totally prized by Corning scientists and engineers.  One is you get a job for life – like academic tenure and job security.  And two, you are also given a lab for life, so you can work on the projects that you think are cool and important and you’ve got a team to support you on it.  This is the pinnacle of achievement in Corning, in many ways.  The way that they actually vet who gets to become a fellow is two metrics.  One is your own patent work.  How much have you generated innovation as the lead contributor to major patents that had a huge impact on the business?  Two, they also track how much you’ve been playing a supportive role as a team player in other people’s patents.  You can’t get Fellow status without both of these. 

What I like about this is it’s a great model of saying, “Look, we’re not just going to reward givers who are selfless.  We’re actually going to reward people who are incredibly productive and generous.”  What I’d love to see are some more clever and smaller-scale examples of that where organizations are trying to figure out, “Alright, can we generate combined awards for being a productive giver, instead of just trying to recognize people who are helpful but maybe lose sight, a little bit, of the success component?” 

CARLA:  We could share one quick example with you, Adam, on a slightly smaller scale but same idea.  At Schlumberger, their communities of practice are called Eureka Communities, and they’re built around technical disciplines.  The person who runs the knowledge management program there is also the same person that runs the talent management program.  The reason for that is that to move up in competency levels, and therefore authority and compensation and status, inside Schlumberger in technical arenas, you not only have to fulfill a number of technical requirements in program and project management, but you also have to have been a leader in communities and that requires all kinds of the kind of supportive behaviors you’re looking for.  Only a tiny percent of people become Fellows, but they’ve have 7,000 technical leaders move through their competency levels partly due to their contribution to the Eureka communities. Schlumberger is one of the clearest matches of technical talent management, and contributing to knowledge management that we’ve seen.

CARLA: Another frequent question is– Even though in the long-run, givers do win, especially at the engineering level, so many of our big corporations appear to be run by takers.  Why is that?  Why does it look that way?

ADAM GRANT:  Well, I think it looks that way because it is that way.  I think a couple of things happen.  First, a lot of givers hide in the shadows.  When you think about leaders at the top of a corporation, the first people who come to mind are the takers because they’re the ones hogging all the attention.  Bob Sutton actually wrote about this quite eloquently in his book, The No A-Hole Rule.  He wrote about how a lot of people think jerks get ahead, but in fact, when you look at the data, there aren’t necessarily more jerks, it’s just that when the jerks are at the top, they really stand out.  A similar dynamic plays out for givers and takers.

Secondly, a lot of givers don’t vie for the very top spot.  They feel like what they want to do is contribute and they don’t necessarily need to be the center of attention all the time.  So, you’ll often find them in roles where they’re supporting the senior leaders in a company; they don’t always say, “It’s my ambition to acquire as much power as possible.”  Of course, in doing that, they do a disservice to their employers, but I think that’s often how it plays out.

The third thing that I think happens is that as I mentioned in the book matching is the most common of the styles, professionally, one place where I believe that’s not true is at the top of a hierarchy.  I think that matching is, essentially, a play-it-safe strategy, but that as people rise and gain power, they no longer need to trade favors evenly to protect themselves.  What they do instead is they basically just express whatever their values are, so you start to get a polarization then of people at the top either being givers or takers. 

The problem then – this is my last point – is when you look at how most organizations select senior leaders, there is a huge emphasis on individual results and solo contributions.  If you’ve got a mix of people who are takers and givers who are candidates and you’re just going to value, “What have you, as an individual, accomplished?” oftentimes the takers will step it up so that they’re more productive and they have a leg up.  But, in fact, if you look at the impact of your success on the success of your team, your unit, or your company, the givers will end up ahead.  I think we need to do a better job measuring and promoting on that basis.

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