He’s too good a person.” This is a cliché that is still commonly incorporated and assimilated in many organisations.

It seems that to succeed and move up the corporate ladder being a good person is not very advisable, or at least not so much. Adam Grant, a Wharton University professor and author of leading books such as Give and Take has been examining what happened to “good people” in organizations for years.


A shameless beggar must have a short denial

n much of his research, Grant distinguishes between two broad profiles: recipients (takers) and donors (givers). Takers could be described as those who always try to get more than they give, use reciprocity to their advantage and, in a way, see others as a means rather than an end. Their view of the world, and especially the corporate world, is one where competitiveness reigns. In a way, it is seeing the world as a jungle where in order to survive and advance towards successful positions, it is important to promote oneself. As Grant points out, they are not cruel, nor are they bad people, they simply use strategies to protect themselves and move forward.

At the opposite pole are the donors. Donors are those who prefer to give (and give themselves) to others rather than receive. They put other people before themselves. They tilt reciprocity in favour of others, and instead of promoting themselves, they promote and praise the rest. They dedicate a lot of time, energy and knowledge to others. In short, they see others as an end, not a means. At an intimate level, the vast majority of people are donors, although it is more difficult to find them in working environments.

Are successful workers the reflection of a balance?

There is, however, a third group, which would be a hybrid of the two. These are those described as balancers. They seek a balance between giving and receiving. They are fair, they help others when they need it, but at the same time, they always seek a certain reciprocity. They see others as both means and ends.

For Grant, what’s really interesting is to answer the following question: which is the profile (recipients, donors, or balancers) that is most likely to occupy the lower rungs of this hierarchy? and which do you think receives the least amount of promotion? If you’ve thought about donors, you’ve got it right!

According to three different studies, donors —or those perceived as “too good”— were less successful than their peers. This was reflected in a study involving 160 engineers. Donors generated fewer reports, tasks, were late in their deliveries, and even made more mistakes. The same result emerged in a study among 600 Belgian medical students. Donors who helped their colleagues the most had worse grades than those who did not. And finally, in another study conducted among sales representatives in North Carolina, the evaluated donors provided two and a half times less benefit than the others. Therefore, the evidence seems to support those who think that being “too good” does not pay off.


The hierarchy of successful workers

The study also wanted to understand who occupied the upper rungs of the hierarchy. Were they the receivers, or the balancers? Who do you think? Surprise, neither of them. The apex men and women in most organisations were also donors. Interestingly enough, donors occupied the lowest part of the organisations, but also the highest. Looking at the three studies again, the least productive engineers were donors, but the most productive were also donors. The recipients and the balancers occupied the whole rest of the organisation, the upper half, and the lower half. The same was true for the Belgian medical students, the donors occupied the lower part of the table in terms of qualifications, but at the same time, the best students were donors. And finally, the best commercials in the North Carolina study were also donors, generating 50% more profit than recipients and balancers. In short, donors dominated the bottom, but also the top.

Therefore, the big question to be answered is: what is the mechanism that separates the bottom rung donors from the top rung donors? According to the evidence in the study, the answer does not lie in talent or aptitude, but in the strategies used and the decisions made. The first-tier donors were distinguished by four main factors:

  • Networking: Successful donors constantly expanded their contacts, and also strengthened existing ones.
  • Collaboration: Successful donors used these new contacts together with existing ones determined to find new ways of collaboration. This entails constant search for synergies.
  • Assessment: Successful donors were continuously cultivating the talent of their entire team, which is the highest point of quality relationships in organisations [link article 14].
  • Influence: Successful donors communicated without energy, but at the same time were very good advocates of their ideas. They listened, and asked questions in an authentic way, encouraging sincere dialogue and generating interesting debates and proposals.

To some extent, concludes Grant, both recipients and donors can become accomplished workers. The big difference is that when one donor succeeds, said success expands, like a domino effect, increasing that of everyone involved in the project. Perhaps the next time we hear “he is too good a person“, we will have to think twice before assuming that this is something detrimental rather than beneficial.