Two Tools That Help Workplace Giving Cultures Stick

By: Kristin Clarke

Wharton School of Business Professor Adam Grant has two tools that staff teams can use to promote a workplace that's collaborative and supportive: the new form of giving.

As a leader, you want to create a workplace where giving—not the monetary kind but the collaborative and supportive kind—is embedded in your culture. This is particularly important in a small-staff organization where employees can often be pulled in numerous directions and feel overwhelmed with everything on their plates.

Thankfully, Wharton School of Business Professor Adam Grant has two favorite tools—from his bestseller Give and Take—that professionals can use to promote a norm of giving and "help-seeking" in the workplace: Reciprocity Rings and Five-Minute Favors.

Reciprocity Rings

His recipe for Reciprocity Rings follows:

Gather a group of eight to 10 people. Participants can include anyone on staff or even people from other organizations. Invite everyone to ask for something they want or need but cannot get on their own. Challenge the rest of the group to "think like givers" and figure out whether anyone knows something or someone who could help fulfill this request.

"You start to see some pretty amazing requests come in and get fulfilled," says Grant. "I've been running a version of this exercise for seven years, and roughly 80 percent of requests get some kind of help."

Reciprocity Rings work for three reasons, he says:

  1. "Everyone's comfortable asking because everyone is asking, so you get people in the mindset and habit of seeking help. That has the effect of making everyone's needs transparent, which makes it a lot easier for givers to give," he says.
  2. Takers—people who only "give to get" without giving back or paying it forward—"know that if they don't volunteer to help anyone in the Reciprocity Ring, they can't get help on their requests, because all contributions are visible. It's done live in a group setting, so takers will often give quite a bit because they want to ensure they model the way they want others to see them," Grant says.
  3. People get to see how everyone in the workplace can get help if a lot of people act like givers. "You've created this marketplace where you can match up a person with a need with the person who can give to fulfill that need, while, in an environment dictated by [tit-for-tat] ‘matching' and trading of favors one on one, it's much harder to do that," Grant says.

Five-Minute Favors

He ran across another technique—the Five-Minute Favor—while researching successful business leaders, in this case serial entrepreneur Adam Rifkin.

"Adam's point is that, to be a giver, you don't have to be Mother Teresa or Gandhi," Grant says. "But we can all shift in a giving direction by giving more Five-Minute Favors, which are simple ways of adding high value to other people's lives at a low personal cost."

Rifkin's preferences are making introductions and recognizing others. Every day for the past 12 years, he has made three email introductions between strangers from his network who could benefit from connecting. The result has been the founding of dozens of companies and even some marriages.

Rifkin's other favorite favor is to go out of his way to recognize and thank people who are givers so they "don't end up staying in the shadows, and so they get appreciated for their contribution," Grant says. "He might write LinkedIn recommendations for you or a thank-you note to your boss if he received great service from you. Again, it's a very small investment of effort on his part that has large value to others."

Kristin Clarke

Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.