Effective altruism on the job
Maybe you’re familiar with Adam Grant. He writes books and gives talks about work and psychology. I saw a TED talk he gave called “Are you a giver or a taker?”
The gist is this: someone who gives a lot at work may be less successful at the individual level. (That’s an idea backed by research and it makes sense. After all, you get less tangible work done.) But organizations with lots of givers—people who help out and mentor others—perform better on the whole.
And so, says Grant, we should create a culture where generous people can thrive. One where we feel comfortable speaking up when we get stuck, and where we’re willing to park our own work to help someone else out.
It seems at first glance to go against one of my principles. I believe it’s good sometimes to turn down requests, to say “No” more often and guard the time you need for your own priorities. But after thinking about it, I’ve come to see things in a different light:
What we really need is something like effective altruism, but then at work
The idea behind this form of altruism, or charitable giving, is researching how we can best allocate our own resources to maximize the effect our donations will have. You can find out more about it here. Instead of just doing what seems best, you use study and analysis to come to a solid decision about where to invest your time/money/energy. And then you’re as giving and generous as possible to do the most good.
If you apply this perspective to work, then take the interests of your organization as your starting point. You can then be generous with your time and willing to put your own interests aside sometimes in service of a larger purpose. But only—and I think this is key—after you’ve assessed whether your help, well, truly helps.
Start by determining what’s important. Make sure you have a clear answer to these two questions: What are the top (1, 2, or 3) priorities of my organization? And what are the top 1, 2, or 3 things that make me successful at my job here?
Do a Friday recap to give your work direction. Reserve as much time in your week as you can for things that fall in one of the two categories above (important for the org, important for me as an employee). Does it fall into both? Even better.
Get into the habit of scanning for opportunities to help. Keep an eye out for people and places you can help in order to contribute directly to the top priorities. If it’s difficult to do this spontaneously, you could consider reserving time in your calendar or adding it to your Friday recap checklist.
Let the team know you’d love to help others out when it advances the goals of the organization. This is one of the points Grant makes in his TED talk: People often need extra encouragement before they dare to ask for help. Be clear about the best way for folks to approach you. It’s easy to say they can drop by “anytime,” but I’d advise you not to do that. The more specific you are, the more likely people will take you up on it.
Come up with smart ways to share the knowledge in your head. Once you’ve been with an organization for a while, you know how a lot of things work. That information is often written down somewhere, but rarely is it all clear and easy to find. You could consider setting up an internal site or a shared document with answers to common questions you get at work.
Don’t confuse being a giver with being friendly—thinking you can never refuse a request—but become an effectively altruistic colleague. And know you’re making a difference.
Have a good week,