There’s a Difference Between Being Generous and Being a Doormat

Welcome written on doormat, against pale blue background --- Image by ? 2/Steven Taylor/Ocean/Corbis
Photo: 2/Steven Taylor/? Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

It is the giving-est time of year, and so it seems very timely indeed that the latest episode of “The Psychology Podcast” features a chat between University of Pennsylvania psychologists Scott Barry Kaufman and Adam Grant about Grant’s work on givers and takers. These are his terms for the people who enjoy being generous and helping others, and the people who are more motivated by personal gain; he wrote an entire book on the subject, published last year. 

It’s safe to assume that most of us would probably rather interact with people closer to the giver than the taker end of that spectrum; Grant mentions that his research has found, not at all surprisingly, that most people would rather marry givers than takers. And although behaving generously toward others sounds very nice, we might hesitate to do so sometimes, perhaps especially in contexts where getting credit for stuff counts — like the workplace, for example. So when does being a “giver” morph into being a doormat? Kaufman posed this question to Grant, who answered this way:

The givers who become doormats are the people who say “yes” to all the people all the time, to all of the requests. … They’re also people, I think, that try to help in too many different ways and at too many different times.

To stay generous while avoiding becoming a total pushover, Grant advises limiting your helpful behaviors to things that align with your interests and expertise, “so that it is enjoyable and energizing, and so I am actually contributing something that is of unique value to people.” Trying to help all of the people all of the time isn’t actually all that helpful in the end, in other words, because you’re probably not strictly helping them with the things you’re actually skilled at. “If you’re a little bit more thoughtful as a giver to who you help, how you help, and when you help,” Grant said, “it really becomes easier to not get taken advantage of and to make sure you’re contributing in ways that are efficient and don’t sacrifice your own priorities.”

Being Generous Without Being a Doormat