Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread…
Studs Terkel

Psychologist Adam Grant divides the working world into three groups of people: Givers, Takers, and Matchers. Givers seek out ways to be helpful and give to others. Matchers play “tit for tat”—they reciprocate and expect reciprocity. Takers focus on getting as much as possible from others.

But there’s a twist. There are times when everyone—even Givers—can operate like Takers.

iStock © Victor_Tongdee
Source: iStock © Victor_Tongdee

Those of us who are not Takers run the risk of starting to operate like Takers, Grant claims, when we don’t realize why what we’re doing matters to other people.

How does he know this? One of the first studies Grant ever did was an examination of University fundraising phone-callers. (These are the people who bother you in the evening trying to get you to donate money.) These callers face tremendous motivational challenges. The chances that the alums on the other end of the line will give are low, and when they do, the dollar amounts are small. The challenges of the job are so overwhelming that it is typical for annual turnover at a University call center to exceed 400%. (In other words, every 3 months the entire staff might quit.)

When Grant looked at one group of callers, “they were pretty burned out,” he told a group at an Aspen Institute gathering. “We had one caller who posted a sign by his desk that said, ‘Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, but no one else notices.’”

Pamela Paresky
Source: Pamela Paresky

According to Grant, executives often assume that employees will do better when incentivized for performance with money, recognition, promotions …etc. With the callers Grant was studying, all of these strategies had been tried but nothing had improved performance.

Although the purpose of the calls was to raise money for the school, a job one might assume would appeal to Givers, “these callers were operating like takers,” Grant maintains, “because they didn’t know how they were giving—they didn’t know where the money went.”

Grant surmised that continuing to reward people in ways that assume self-interested motives might actually perpetuate self-interested behavior and create Takers out of Givers. Believing that providing the opportunity for callers to see the positive impact of their work would inspire them and improve their effectiveness, Grant decided on the following experiment: He had leaders from the school come talk to the fundraising callers about the statistics regarding where the money was going. The callers learned how much went to faculty and staff salaries, buildings, scholarships …etc.

By way of background, Adam Grant, the highest-rated teacher at The 
Wharton School, the youngest tenured professor in the history of the University of Pennsylvania, a former advertising director,
 and even a former junior Olympian, is the author of the book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He was named one of
 BusinessWeek’s favorite professors, and his clients 
include Google, the United Nations, the 
U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. Suffice it to say, he’s a pretty smart guy and he knows his stuff.

So did his experiment work?

“It did no good whatsoever.” Grant reports. “In fact a lot of the callers did worse.”

What was going on? Eventually Grant realized that rather than being inspired, the callers were skeptical that giving them information about where the money went was a ploy to try to get them to work harder. (And it was.)

So Grant invited a scholarship recipient to speak with the fundraisers. No one else was allowed—no executives, no school personnel. Only the callers and the scholarship student. The student spent about five minutes telling the callers how those phone calls made a difference in his life and how much he appreciated it.

“The callers spiked 142% in weekly minutes on the phone and 171% in weekly money raised,” Grant reports, “and that actually turned out to be a conservative estimate because in another study we found a more compelling scholarship student who had a more powerful story to tell, and average callers spiked more than 400% in weekly revenue.”

To be clear, nothing in the circumstances of making the phone calls had changed. The callers used all the same materials in the same environment with the same goal. The only thing that changed was the umwelt—the callers’ subjective world of making fundraising calls.

Your umwelt is like a lens through which you see, and impacts how you interact with whatever is going on in your life. In some situations your umwelt creates a reality in which you act effectively, and in others you are unable to see any possibility for effective action—your umwelt is not serving you. A shift in your umwelt doesn’t change the situation you confront, but it does alter the impact that situation has on you, and the ways in which you interact with it.

Before speaking with the scholarship student, the callers’ umwelt (the subjective world of the job) was one of trying to convince alumni to donate to the school—or more cynically, “to swindle alums into giving their hard-earned dollars away,” Grant jokes. Their effectiveness was determined by that umwelt; the lens through which they saw everything they were doing. After meeting a real person whose life was positively impacted by their work, the callers’ umwelt shifted to one of a meaningful opportunity to make a difference.

Perhaps most intriguing is this: Although survey reports demonstrated that after meeting the scholarship student the callers were more motivated, found their work more meaningful, and thought the job made more of a difference than they did before that 5-minute interaction, in interviews afterward, none of the callers said that their experience of the job or their effectiveness had been impacted by that visit from the scholarship student. “Because who is motivated by one 5-minute interaction?” Grant quizzes. “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yet clearly that 5-minute interaction created a profound umwelt shift. “It seems like that interaction—and we’ve replicated this about a dozen times in other settings—was a catalyst for starting to think about ‘why does my work matter and who is affected by it?’”

iStock © Rawpixel Ltd
Source: iStock © Rawpixel Ltd

Try This At Home: Consider what your umwelt is for your job. What is the lens through which you see your work? Then ask yourself, “Why does my work matter and who is affected by it?” Does it make you think about your job differently?

If you liked this article, you might also be interested in What You Need to Know About a Know-it-All, The Best Commencement Speech of All Time, Did You Have an Extraordinary Teacher?, and The Road Let's Travel

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