Can You Be Too Generous
February 23 / 2017

Harvard Business Review just featured a weeklong series about Generosity Burnout, which is well worth the read. As someone who often speaks of leading with generosity, it obviously gave me pause. Have I been wrong to advise people that being of service with no expectation of reciprocity is the best way to approach new relationships? I decided no, and I believe Adam Grant would be one of the first people to extol the efficacy of generosity. He wrote a book on it. But if it’s still better to give than to receive, at what point does being generous shift from a positive character trait to an overwhelming burden?

That’s a question each of us has to answer for ourselves, but if you feel that your generosity in helping colleagues succeed is undermining your own work performance or your overall well-being, now is a good time to self-reflect. This is particularly true if you’re a woman, because according to Grant and his collaborator and Wharton colleague, Reb Rebele, “Women shoulder responsibility for the giving acts that are most valuable but least visible, like mentoring behind the scenes. They get stuck with the office housework — planning meetings, taking notes. And they don’t get that time back to use for their own work, professional development, or opportunities to volunteer for higher-visibility initiatives.” Working collaboratively is a necessity but being the office “oracle” can come with too big a price — for both the individual and the organization. So how do you lead with generosity without leading with too much generosity?

‘Takers’ aren’t the only troublesome collaborators

To help identify individuals who may be susceptible to generosity burnout, Grant and Rebele have created a simple and easily understood generosity scale with four types: Takers, Matchers, Self-Protective Givers, and Selfless Givers. Takers, obviously, can create dysfunctional teams, as they are solely self-motivated and will take without giving, especially credit for a job well done. Matchers can rise or fall to the level of their collaborators, serving to amplify how well, or poorly, a team works together. Self-Protective Givers appreciate the need to balance helping others with their own well-being, and that of the team and offer help that advances both. But not all givers are helpful. Selfless Givers can cause as many problems as they think they are solving by taking on too much, delivering too little, too late, and causing others to miss critical deadlines.

Self-preservation is critical to making sure the team operates at its full potential; that’s why the best collaborators are Self-Protective Givers. Taking care of yourself first isn’t selfish, and it doesn’t have to be uncooperative. Everyone experiences stress, so speaking about it candidly with teammates can open up others to being more collaborative and better partners. It’s OK to expect that asking a teammate to fill a gap for you has a built-in expectation that you’ll do the same for him or her when needed. That’s living an axiom I see on every high-performing team: When one fails, we all fail. Additionally, by considering your own needs and experience before agreeing to help, you develop a clearer view of how each team member can best support the collaboration rather than defaulting to the person who “always says yes.”

Three steps to being more self-protective

Grant and Rebele’s article offers the fantastic advice of sussing out and being firm with Takers, and when necessary, to adopt the behavior of a Matcher so that every request becomes a marker you can call in later. This works well when you’re dealing with a peer, but what do you do when the Taker is higher ranked, which sounds likely according to Grant and Rebele, because Takers “kiss up and kick down.” Navigating those waters feel perilous, but with a few simple adjustments, you can become more protective of your own time and energy, as well as a greater asset to your team. Below are my three suggestions for how you can become a Self-Protective Giver.

1. Practice the “No … but” strategy.

Every two-year-old knows the value of the word “No,” but we seem to forget it along the way by trying to fit in or get along. If you’re uncomfortable with giving a flat and definitive “no” try the “no … but” approach. You’re still giving and still being helpful, because you’re connecting the teammate with another coworker that is either better skilled or has the available time to take care of the request. Obviously, you need to confirm that the other person is available and willing to help, but once you’ve connected your teammates, you can go home happy that you helped instead of feeling guilty about saying no.

2. Buddy up with a self-protective giver for advice and mentoring.

Self-Protective Givers are usually highly regarded and have lots of friends at work, so they’re easy to spot. Buy them lunch, take them out for coffee, or just ask for advice on how to handle that difficult Taker coworker. It won’t be a hard subject to broach, because you and the Self-Protective Giver already share a generous and giving nature. So building on that common ground, ask them if they can mentor you so you don’t get overwhelmed or burned-out. You’ll probably learn something simply by the way they respond to your request.

3. Be candid with the “Takers.”

This may seem counter-intuitive at best and impossible at worst, but if you speak the language Takers understand, they’ll be more responsive to your suggestions. They, more than any type, understand self-preservation, so frame your response around how it will impact the Taker’s success or failure in the team. For example, make your involvement an option: Does the Taker want her specific job done or does she want the team to succeed and get those bonuses? That’s a pretty easy choice. And if you have a close enough relationship with the Taker, explain how his or her requests are impacting your ability to perform. Explain that to continue helping, you’ll need a quid pro quo. Takers aren’t offended by transactional relationships.

I still say leading with generosity is the best approach, but you have to set personal limits, and be aware of the personality type you’re dealing with—and Grant and Rebele offer a great guide for doing this. Knowing what you can and can’t do, and how you can add value rather than just “help out” is key to becoming a stellar collaborator who moves the team forward. Your colleagues will sit up and take notice—and appreciate your performance all the more.6