Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Givers and Takers

This post is by Dr Judy Robertson who is a senior lecturer in computer science at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and Chief Cat Herder for the undergraduate computer science programme there. 

Judy is a blogger as well as a contributing author to the amusing collaborative internet novel in progress “Granite University”.

In this post Judy has some advice for academics, which we can all benefit from.

How much do you help people as part of your day to day job? If you’re an academic, do you try to hoarde every precious minute for your research, or do you shower your time upon students like confetti? Or, like me, are you conflicted about it?

Adam Grant’s book Give and Take considers the question of how much time employees spent helping others, making the case that highly successful people are often what he terms “givers”.

A giver is someone who gives freely to others - of advice, help, contacts, time - without any expectation of return. A taker is someone who tries to get as much from other people as possible without paying back, whereas a matcher aims to trade evenly.  If you want to find out what you are, try the assessment here.

I was a giver. Most of the time. But not during marking season.

According to Grant, takers can crash spectacularly when their colleagues realise their selfish attitude and start to resent them. Perhaps, contrary to expectation, though, some givers can be very successful even though they spend a lot of time helping others.

Grant would say that if you interpet your job as a zero sum game, then you expect to lose out if you help others. But if you have a generosity approach, then you believe that everyone benefits if everyone does more favours to others.

The favours don’t need to be reciprocal: if you think about it as a “pay it forward” arrangement, you give freely and perhaps you’ll benefit from the help of a different person in the future as there are more favours being done overall.

The question is how can givers avoid being trampled on like savannah grass under elephant’s feet? How can an academic maintain her internationally leading research profile and still find time to help the first year undergraduate with his essay?

In the last year I have spent a lot of time trying to improve the relationship between staff and students in my department. A lot of what I have done is nudge my research active colleagues very slightly to spend more time on teaching even if it means a little less on research.

This translates pretty much towards more of a focus on giving. Without teaching, most UK universities would go under. Students pay our salaries. But we’re promoted according to our research record, which on the face of it doesn’t encourage us to spend more time giving/teaching.

It’s easy to see why teaching is giving - the sharing of knowledge and experience, dispensing of advice and tissues, writing of recommendation letters. It’s harder to see research as giving unless you do medical research or something else useful.

My field is computer science which makes it harder to portray our research as a selfless dedication to humankind. We’re mostly in pursuit of the glory of high h-indices and large grants (an honourable exception is my student Andy Macvean who tries to make fat kids thin with iPhones. And in my own defense, I have spent a lot of time helping the little children with computers).

Part of the problem is time pressure, of course. Academics are incurably busy. If you use a productivity system like Getting Things Done, you’ll notice that it doesn’t advise you to set up a folder for “Helping folk” and consider who to help as a next action (but you could, actually).

Grant advocates the five minute favour rule which in essence means that if you have an opportunity to help someone and it only takes five minutes, go ahead and do it. For academics this could make a huge difference to a student’s learning or well being. What can you do in five-ish minutes?
  • Advise a student on what course to take.
  • Direct a depressed student to the counselling service.
  • Write a brief recommendation letter.
  • Give feedback on an essay draft (think you can’t do that in 5 minutes? You can if you ask the person to tell you the MOST important aspect they want feedback on).
Another tip is to bundle all your favours into a block and do them as a batch because apparently it’s more satisying that way. Presumably less disruptive to your research too.

Giving refers to helping colleagues as well as students of course.

I heard recently about an early career research who was advised not to spend time helping develop the career of her PhD students on the grounds that in four years time they would be competing with her for grant funding.

I’m glad to say that she thought this was nonsense. Like me, she considered that in helping a student become employable she was making a future for herself filled with trusted and loyal colleagues.

Mentoring is another powerful way to help colleagues.

I’m sorry to say that I attended an ACM Women’s Breakfast a month ago where a female speaker recommended only asking powerful male colleagues to be your mentor on the grounds that women won’t help other women. I think this is complete bollocks.

I have been fortunate to have some very helpful women mentors and I try pretty hard to help other women.

If you’re worried about people taking advantage of your good nature (like by dumping their teaching responsiblities on you while they swan off to a high powered conference) you could adopt the generous tit for tat strategy.

Your default behaviour is to help people without help of reward. If you notice a taker who is treating you badly, you then start to trade favours evenly with them as a matcher would, with a little leeway for forgiveness.

So go on, give giving a try today! Everyone wins.

Can you think of any other five minute favours you could do in academia? Interested to hear your thoughts.
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