By Erika Andersen | FASTCOMPANY | November 19, 2012
Being generous can mean sharing your feedback, your knowledge, and your credit with people–but most importantly, it can mean the difference between a good leader and a great one.
What is true generosity?
We tend to think of generous people as those who share material wealth: giving to charity, buying expensive gifts, or taking the in-laws out for dinner. In business, we think of generous leaders as those who provide a way for their people to share materially in the success of the company–through raises, profit sharing, or a bonus system. All of these things can be good, but they are only part of true generosity. Truly generous leaders share the wealth on many levels. For example, they are quick to give others credit for their good efforts and new ideas. They’re also generous with their knowledge, sharing information with those who need it and teaching others around them how to do what they themselves do well. They are generous with their faith in people; they tend to assume best intent (although they are not naïve) and believe people are generally innocent until proven guilty.
Perhaps most important, they are generous with power. The generous leader, having provided the information necessary for success, gives people the authority and autonomy to act on that information. A leader who is fully generous shares both the power to make decisions and the responsibility for dealing with the consequences of those decisions. She shares the resources necessary for people to recover from mistakes and failure. Finally, she is generous with feedback. She takes the time to notice what her staff is doing or not doing, think about what’s great and what’s not, and share with them her observations.
What about in times of scarcity?
As we’ve worked with leaders during these last few years of economic shakiness, we often get pushback about generosity. How can we be generous when resources are thin? they ask. I’m convinced that question arises from a narrow definition of generosity and narrow understanding of what people most want from their leaders.
Bosses tend to err on the side of thinking that what’s most important to workers is material generosity: high wages, lush benefits, big offices, and insurance coverage, research has shown again and again that what employees most want, and what most effectively creates a committed and productive workforce, are things like appreciation, interesting work, being included, being trusted, having opportunities for individual growth, and flexible schedules. In other words, they most want their leaders to be generous with acknowledgement, responsibility, information, trust, and openness to new ways of working. And fortunately for leaders, that sort of generosity is possible in good times and bad.
In fact, being generous in that way can often make up for a temporary lack of ability to be generous with resources. In the depths of this last recession, at the beginning of 2009, a client of ours called a town hall meeting with his whole company, about 250 employees. He told them that revenues had really taken a hit (the banking industry formed a big part of its customer base). He let everyone know they were making immediate efforts to diversify their client base and that he felt they’d be back on track by the following year. He said that he was 100 percent committed to not laying anyone off but noted that in order to keep that promise, they were going to have to forgo yearly bonuses and put a freeze on raises and promotions. If it got worse before it got better, they might have to institute some temporary wage cuts. He said that the same cost-cutting measures applied to everyone in the organization, including him. He also shared that he was going to take a voluntary 15 percent pay cut for the year. Finally, he told everyone in the organization that they were welcome to look at a high-level profit-and-loss statement to see how the cuts would balance lost revenue and allow some modest investment in sales and marketing.
The employees weren’t thrilled, of course, but his generosity with information, his generosity in committing to retaining all the employees, and his personal generosity in taking a hit in advance of everyone else were meaningful to people. The company squeaked through the year, and by the third quarter of 2010 sales were largely back on track. Only one key person left, and our client believes that his folks’ generous response (in time, collaboration, creativity, and commitment) was largely responsible for their fairly quick return to profitability.
Generous leadership makes people feel capable, included, and motivated to succeed. It also makes them feel generous themselves. A generous leader is a powerful role model and catalyst for an open, honest, supportive organization.
How to be generous
Generosity is in some ways easier to identify and cultivate than other attributes. It’s still helpful to have a handful of specific behaviors to focus on if this is one of the areas where you need to develop as a leader.
Leaders who are generous:
1. Assume positive intent
2. Share power and authority
3. Share what they know
4. Freely give credit, praise, and reward
5. Provide the resources necessary to succeed
It’s especially important, as you assess yourself in this attribute, to be a fair witness. Because it’s embarrassing to think that we might not be generous (nobody wants to be considered a jerk, a miser, or selfish), it’s easy to sort of zip past this one, thinking, Oh yeah, sure, I’m good at that.
But really reflect on each of the five behaviors and ask yourself, “How consistent am I in doing this?” You may believe in all these things, but do you actually behave this way?
Excerpted from Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass; October 2012) by Erika Andersen. All rights reserved.