Why is generosity awkward?

Awkwardness of Giving

Valentine’s day is tomorrow.  We all know that guy that swears he will not be celebrating because it is a corporate holiday that was invented to sell more greeting cards.  That’s not actually true.  It was first a pagan fertility holiday called Lupercalia that was annexed by the church in much the same way that we have on Easter Bunny to celebrate the rebirth of Jesus.  You gotta give it up for those popes, they knew how to market an idea.  What is true is that there are a ton of holidays out there that were created by Hallmark like boss’s day, secretary’s day, grandparents day, etc.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Yes, it is self-serving for Hallmark but it does give us an excuse to be generous.

Awkward-face.jpgSomewhere along the way, being generous became awkward.  I’m not talking about giving to a charity or giving to the poor, these options carry none of the awkwardness.  I’m talking about giving a gift to a friend or picking up lunch when going out with a colleague.  The social contract has changed so much that offering to do these things has become almost taboo.  It’s still perfectly acceptable for a boss to take an employee out and buy them lunch (especially if they are expensing it) but there is no way that’s ok the other way around.  A corporate lunch involves the market contract, so much so, that many times the employee doesn’t even feel compelled to say thank you.  Yet buying coffee for a friend comes laden with all these weird feelings.  What happened?

We’ll unpack this in a second but first I’d like to share a personal anecdote that got me thinking about this.  I have been going through a lot of the Headspace meditation packs for the second time and I’ve found myself back on the generosity pack.  One of the meditations asks you to give a gift to somebody throughout the course of the day to heighten your awareness about generosity.  It’s not supposed to be something big and the receiver of the gift shouldn’t know that the gift is part of an exercise.

This got me to thinking back to the first time I had done this.  I ended up buying one of my colleagues a cup of coffee.  She graciously accepted and I felt pretty good about myself.  Several days later I found that she kept trying to return the favor.  It clearly bothered her and she felt somehow that I put her in my debt.  Obviously not my intent.  I did let her buy me that return cup and she felt good about it partly from the generosity but more I think because by doing so, the social checkbook had been balanced.

The Experiment

So, I decided to conduct a social experiment.  At the time I was leading several teams that each had anywhere from four to seven members on them.  I randomly approached one member of each team and gave them twenty bucks.  I then asked, “please spend this on somebody on your team.  You can spend it on yourself too but make sure that some of it goes to somebody on the team.  You also can’t tell them that it came from me.”  I read business books constantly, so I think I stole this idea from one of those books (may have been Adam Grant’s Give and Take) or maybe a Ted Talk.  I didn’t ask them how it went.  I acted like it never happened.  A couple of weeks later, I gave another person from each team a twenty with the same instruction.  I didn’t tell them that I did the same with anybody else.  I repeated this with new people a third time several weeks after that.

The results were interesting.  The communication levels in all the teams rose.  The productivity in most of the teams rose.  In the smallest team, it rose the most.  On that team, they actually started a habit of going out to lunch together where one person would often pick up the bill.  Generosity had become much less awkward and the team was better because of it.  However, in one of the teams, productivity had actually fallen.  That team had a member on it who was always happy to accept free stuff but he never did his part to provide it.  This pissed people off.  He worked in much the same way but this experiment exposed that in a social context as well.

The problem with a person like that is they bring everyone down to their level.  Nobody wants to be taken for a chump.  When someone is not doing their part everyone around them feels devalued and morale drops .  Needless to say, we let that person go not too long after and I berated myself for not picking up on it sooner.  The problem with this guy was he was very agreeable and he did a good job of calling out every accomplishment of his regardless of how minor.  In other words, he was good at managing up.  It was a valuable lesson learned, the increase in productivity was a great bonus and all it cost me was a couple hundred bucks.

Some of the Reasons

Back to generosity.  As kids we loved giving presents.  It gives us a shot of oxytocin and makes us feel like saints.  My youngest daughter will still go into her room and wrap up random stuff and give it to us on any given week night.  Where does that go?  Why does it become weird?

There’s a lot of reasons.  The first is that we sometimes receive gifts we don’t like.  Like if you ever get a piece of clothing and you just know it’s something you’re never going to wear.  The giver always says, “there’s a gift receipt in there, feel free to take it back.”  Jim Gaffigan had the best response ever for this – “oh thank you, you gave me a chore for Christmas.”  We know that we don’t want to give something that someone doesn’t like so sometimes we obsess over getting the best gift for that person and often we just say, ‘screw it, I’ll just give em a gift card.’

Another reason is that we don’t want that person to feel indebted to us.  Even though we know it feels good for us to give we don’t want it to feel bad for someone else to receive.  That may sound cowardly but that doesn’t make it any less true or any less awkward.

Though I’m sure there are a host of other reasons it got awkward, the final reason I’m going to talk about is that we don’t give because we have a hidden fear that someone is going to take advantage of us.  This fear makes it awkward to even contemplate generosity.  We’ve all had the experience that my teams had with that self-serving jackwad that took and took but never gave.

Give and Take

Adam Grant articulates this incredibly well in his book Give and Take.  He says that all of us fall into one of three classes.  Most of us are matchers.  A matcher believes that if I give you something I expect that you will match it at some point down the road.  This has become the normal social contract.  Then you have the takers.  The takers are those that receive but never give.  Finally, you have the givers.  These are the folks that give and give often without expecting anything in return.

altruismHe then looks at success of each type over a broad sample size.  He found that those that were the least successful were the givers.  These are the folks that gave and gave until they burned themselves out.  They had nothing more to give, even to themselves.  Surprisingly, the most successful people were also the givers.  Takers would often do pretty well until people found them out.  Givers that understood the perils of giving were far and away the most successful.  Helping other people, especially the right people (not takers), paves the road to success.

Remember, there are many ways to be generous.  It doesn’t have to be gifts.  You can be more generous with your time.  You can give heartfelt counsel when asked.  You can be there for your friends or family when they need you.  You can celebrate each and every one of the Hallmark holidays if you need an excuse to be generous.

Whatever you do, just give.  It’s good for you.

Leave a Reply