Careers

These are the most undervalued employees at your company, according to psychologist Adam Grant

The irritable team members who toil away in the corner and don't stop by the watercooler might not be the most popular employees, but they might still be the key to your company's long-term success.

That's according to organizational psychologist, Wharton professor and New York Times-bestselling author Adam Grant. He recently gave a TED talk about the findings from his popular management philosophy book, "Give and Take."

Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, with his book, 'Give and Take.'
Photo by Marla Aufmuth
Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, with his book, 'Give and Take.'

Grant identifies three kinds of employees. Takers approach every situation looking for what's in it for them. Givers approach situations looking to help others. And matchers are willing to help those who help them.

To determine the success of the three categories of workers, Grant studied dozens of organizations, from hospitals to sales teams, and worked with engineers to measure their productivity. Givers are both the best and worst individual performers, but across the board, givers make an organization stronger.

"We have a huge body of evidence, many, many studies looking at the frequency of giving behavior that exists in a team or an organization, and the more often people are helping and sharing their knowledge and providing mentoring, the better organizations do on every metric we can measure: Higher profits, customer satisfaction, employee retention. Even lower operating expenses," says Grant in his TED talk.

Identifying the givers in your organization might be trickier than you think, though. They are not necessarily the most charming co-workers.

"I always assumed that agreeable people were givers and disagreeable people were takers. But then I gathered the data, and I was stunned to find no correlation between those traits," says Grant.

"Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organizations, because they're the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear." -Adam Grant, organizational psychologist

Agreeable givers are easy to identify. It's what Grant calls the "disagreeable givers" that are harder to spot. They're the diamonds in the rough, says Grant.

"Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organizations, because they're the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear," he says.

"We need to do a much better job valuing these people as opposed to writing them off early, and saying, 'Eh, kind of prickly, must be a selfish taker.'"

While disagreeable givers are valuable to the long-term success of your company, identifying them in the interview process takes skill.

There's an interview question that can help, though: "Can you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?"

Getting an answer to that question during the interview process is illuminating, says Grant. Takers will list four people who are above them in the professional hierarchy. Givers will list people below them in the professional hierarchy.

That's because takers are constantly looking to impress their superiors, while givers are willing to spend time helping those who won't necessarily be able to help them in return.

"Let's face it, you all know you can learn a lot about character by watching how someone treats their restaurant server or their Uber driver," says Grant.