When you hear someone say “She’s such a great parent. She does everything for her kids”, or “The CEO cares more about this company’s success than her own”, what’s your reaction?
Do you think about how selfless and committed that person is, and how successful they must be?
Well, recent research suggests you might be wrong.
When it comes to sharing your time and energy, giving selflessly (at the expense of your own goals and motivation) does not always result in better outcomes for those you are helping.
Two experts in this field are Rob “Reb” Rebele, a teacher in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, and Adam Grant, author of the book Give and Take.
Self-less vs self-protective givers
Mr Rebele and Professor Grant studied teachers to see what impact different kinds of giving had on student outcomes.
They wrote about their unpublished study in the Harvard Business Review.
In one example, 400 teachers were asked to help a student from another class with their maths homework.
The ‘self-less’ giver said: “Great, let’s schedule an all-day study session on Saturday and I will come in”.
The ‘self-protective’ giver said: “Hey, I am tutoring another student in maths after school. Why don’t you join us?”
The teachers were given 11 different scenarios, with requests from students, teachers and school administration.
When Mr Rebele and Professor Grant analysed the results, they found teachers who responded frequently in a ‘self-less’ way (helping without boundaries), actually had students who performed worse academically than the ‘self-protective’ givers.
“Those teachers who were the most selfless actually had the lowest performing classes,” Mr Rebele said in a recent interview.
Why does it matter? Mr Rebele says how you help people can affect your own health and wellbeing, particularly if you are a constant ‘self-less’ giver.
His advice is to be a ‘self-protective’ giver.
This is where you have high concern for yourself and others.
While their research focused on the workplace, this approach translates well to families and relationships.
Just like in the workplace, it’s important to be a ‘self-protective’ giver, when it comes to your intimate relationships.
And for parents to carve out time as a couple, and for their own individual needs.
A scientist I know who is a new mother told me about the time she decided to have a night out at the theatre with some of the mothers from school. She was nervous about booking a babysitter, but summoned up the courage and did it.
When they were out, one women in the group said to her: “It’s so good that you can go out and leave your baby. I could never do that.”
She was speechless and filled with guilt. But then she said to herself: “No, I am not going to feel bad. I will be a better parent if I have a strong sense of self, and a better role model to my child”.
She was in self-protective mode.
What does being an effective giver mean?
“Being an effective giver isn’t about dropping everything every time for every person,” Professor Grant and Mr Rebele wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
Why does it matter? It’s important because how much you give to others depletes what you have left for yourself.
Remember the air safety demonstration advice to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others?
If you do feel overwhelmed with requests and responsibilities — whether it’s at work, home or family, take a moment and ask yourself:
- What is in my control that I could change or alter?
- What tasks can I delegate to others?
- If I take on this particular responsibility, what could I give up in return?
And there’s another a big one: learn to say no.
If you say no to some requests, you will have the energy and motivation to focus on the people, projects and passions that really matter to you.
What are your strategies when you feel overwhelmed with request to give your time? Get in touch and let me know what has worked for you.