How Super-Nice People Become Super-Successful (Really)

Workers can get ahead by helping others, says Wharton's Adam GrantConventional wisdom has long held that getting to the top requires a certain ruthlessness. In fact, studies have shown that CEOs are four times more likely to be psychopathic than regular workers. Compassion and kindness may be nice qualities, but when you're working at a corporation? Not so much.

But Adam Grant, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, says that as the world of work has become more interconnected, success is increasingly dependent on relationships. There is simply more project-based work, so organizations require people to collaborate on teams to get things done. And more jobs require the ability to satisfy clients and customers. At 31, Wharton's youngest tenured professor, Grant (pictured above) argues that people who are "givers" most often achieve great success because they're advancing everyone's interests, not just their own. "Helping is not the enemy of productivity. ... it is the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity," he was quoted as saying in a New York Times Magazine cover story about him.

Grant's latest book, "Give and Take," was published on Wednesday, and is based on studies and personal case histories that suggest that a total embrace of selflessness is the best professional compass. The book cites many examples of workers who have succeeded by being generous and tapping into others' innate desire to give. Here's two:
  • A computer programmer built a free website for music fans. One of the fans of the site turned out out to be a wealthy Silicon Valley investor.
  • The advertising team for the "Let's Go" travel books boosted revenues 400 percent by including young students on sales calls who had been inspired in their life to give back because of their travels.

Even Grant admits that this "pro-social" approach won't solve every corporate problem or guarantee success. After all, no one can expect workers to simply ignore their self-interest. Or as Jerry Davis, a management professor at the University of Michigan, recently told the Times: "So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?"

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Nevertheless, Grant's professional success may be partly due to his willingness to help others. Students give him the highest ratings of any professor at Wharton and, according to Business Insider, he's also Google's favorite psychologist. (The company turns to him for its "big problems," Prasad Setty, the head of Google's people analytics group, told the Times.)

But how can you be helpful without becoming a doormat or spending your entire day doing other people's work? Here are five tips from his work on how to make niceness pay off.

1. Help in your area of expertise. It's impossible to be all things to all people. But if you focus on one area in your field where you can help others, you can carve out a niche. As Grant said in an interview with Forbes, "If you become known for giving advice on salary negotiations, for example, people will recognize your unique expertise in that area, while seeking you out less often for miscellaneous requests."

2. Take on "five-minute" favors. When you go out of your way to make a new introduction, or share an article, you've lost very little time. But the payoff of extending your network is unknowable.

3. Seek out unpopular tasks. Every team or department has that set of tasks that no one wants to tackle. By being the willing person, Grant told Forbes, you'll become "widely appreciated," which should only improve your standing.

4. Prioritize accessibility. Grant spends much of his time answering all emails sent his way and helping his colleagues and students with networking. (He keeps his LinkedIn profile public.) And as a result of his large network, people know that they can reach out to him for professional opportunities, which in his field, take the form of paid speaking engagements and articles.

5. Measure yourself through others. "I don't care how many articles I publish or how many words I write," Grant told the Times. Instead, Grant says, he focuses on how he's using his "limited time to make the most difference."

Do you have any tips to add to this list?

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