Bestselling author and top-rated Wharton School professor Adam Grant will be speaking at the 2014 ACA National Conference  on Thursday, February 6. In an interview with ACA, Grant explores how the principles set forth in his highly acclaimed book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, apply to the camp experience.
Tell us about your experiences in camp.
I would say that growing up, camp was absolutely the highlight of my childhood. I went to two different sleep-away camps. Every summer, I was either at sports camp or some kind of activity camp. During high school, I spent every summer at diving camp. In college, I spent every summer at cooking camp.
I’ve been a lifelong camper. Many summers also included family camp when I was growing up. Once my kids are a little older, family camp is definitely on the list of things to do. I’m excited for it.
You have mentioned that you first learned many of the principles in Give and Take during your own experiences at camp. Would you elaborate on that?
Yes. Looking back, one of the things that really stands out is that a camp counselor is the quintessential “giver.” The counselors I had who were really outstanding were the ones who thought of the whole job as trying to create a really wonderful experience for kids. I think part of that was making camp incredibly fun. Part of that was creating learning experiences and helping to build community and relationships.
The really great counselors weren’t trying to get something back from their campers, and they had no expectation that the time and energy they devoted would be directly reciprocated in any way. They just seemed to take a lot of joy in helping people try new things and have a really exciting summer.
Can you define the terms “taker,” “matcher,” and “giver” for those who haven’t seen your work yet?
I find that these are three universal styles of interaction that exist in all industries and cultures around the world. People who operate like takers are usually trying to get as much as possible from others, giving as little back in return as they can. Givers, on the other end of the spectrum, are people who enjoy helping others and frequently do it with no strings attached. And most of us fall right in the middle of that spectrum as matchers. A matcher is somebody who tries to keep an even balance of give and take. In other words, it’s quid pro quo — if I do you a favor, I expect an equal favor in return. And if you do me a favor, I might feel like I was in debt until I settled the score.
What caused you to start looking at reciprocity styles in relation to success in business?
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of students tell me they really wanted to make a difference — so they were planning to choose a career that would allow them to accumulate the most wealth over thirty-five years and then start giving back.
And as I would talk to them more and more about this, it became clear they believed that, at a minimum, being a matcher (or in many cases, being a taker), would be necessary for their professional success. And they thought that if they were too giving at work, they would get taken advantage of or might get too burned out.
I saw from my own experience and a lot of the research I’d been doing that this way of thinking was backwards. Yes, there are plenty of givers that sink to the bottom, get taken advantage of, and end up exhausted. But also, most of the very successful people I’d interacted with started giving long before they achieved success. I began to be more curious about whether, in fact, giving is a path to success rather than success enabling people to give.
In a camp staff context, what does a “taker” look like, what does a “matcher” look like, and what does a “giver” look like?
A taker in a camp counseling setting would be the person who always claims or hogs the really interesting and visible tasks. The person who always wants to do only the fun activities with campers. The person who leaves the grunt work for everyone else. They never clean up the mess hall. They never want to be the disciplinarian who sometimes makes camp a little less fun in a way that actually creates order and allows everything to work.
Another trait of a taker in a camp setting would be someone who goes out of his or her way to claim credit individually for a collective accomplishment. I remember some counselors whose cabin or bunk would win something, and it was all about them, not the campers.
You can see a matcher in counselor-tocounselor relations more than anywhere else. If you were to ask another counselor for help, the matcher would say, “I’ll do this for you, if you do this for me.” The taker would be less inclined to help unless you were somebody really important. The giver would probably help without any kind of quid pro quo.
In your book, you make the point that givers are a “rare breed” in the workplace, but in our camps, a primary goal of staff training is to help instill giver values among our staff. What are some techniques we can use to do a better job of this?
Have each counselor identify a signature form of giving. I find that people are a lot more comfortable giving when they are specialists rather than generalists. In other words, don’t try to give with all the different kinds of requests that come in. Rather, figure out a form of giving that you’re uniquely good at and you enjoy. If you have an activity that you’re incredibly passionate about, it’s really difficult not to share that with other people. Once people identify their passion, investing time and energy into it becomes something that is easy and fun, doesn’t really cost them anything, and makes them feel like they benefit from it, too.
Another step is to try to keep good track of what people need. We find that givers who end up figuring out how to contribute value to other people spend a lot of time asking questions and paying attention to what people are stuck on and the challenges people face on a daily basis. There are many ways to cultivate norms around people sharing the things they need help with so that the givers know who could benefit from their help and how.
Can you suggest any strategies or techniques we could use to help prevent staff burnout at the end of the season?
This is a pervasive challenge. If you look at burnout research, a lot of people think that people burnout because they give too much. I actually find in my studies that burnout is frequently the result of giving without feeling like you make a difference.
Think about the ways you can connect staff members to the impact their work has had. Maybe that’s by having former campers come back. Or maybe you employ some kind of opportunity for feedback for them to understand, “Here’s how the work that I’ve done on a daily basis has really mattered to other people.”
The other big driver of burnout is getting pulled back and forth between too many commitments. There are some organizations that actually have “quiet-time windows” where people are not allowed to interrupt each other or ask for help. And that allows people to make progress on whatever they are trying to finish that might be an individual responsibility or task. It frees up a lot of energy then to say, “If I have other ways that I want to contribute, now I can do that.” Setting those boundaries where people can either make progress on the things they are behind on or even just have time to recharge is pretty useful.
What specific skills can we help our staff and campers gain that will make them more likely to be givers in adulthood?
There’s some research on how parents raise their children that really speaks to that. When you see a camper do something helpful, you often acknowledge it by saying, “That was a really helpful act,” or “Thanks for giving your time.” And the evidence suggests that it’s better to shift from verb to noun when giving an acknowledgement. Instead of saying, “That was really helpful,” say, “You’re a really helpful person.” Rather than saying, “Thanks for giving your time and energy here,” say, “Thanks for being a giver.” When you make it into a noun, campers are more likely to internalize it as part of their identity.
There’s a self-concept change in some cases where the camper may start to say, “I am a helpful person. And next time there’s a chance to help, I’m more likely to do it because it’s part of how I see myself.” Over time, that can help to internalize the value associated with giving.
Oftentimes, we try to cultivate values and attitudes first. We try to convince people that giving is important, that we should all help each other. But if you look at fifty years of research in social psychology, the data tells quite a different story. It’s often easy to change behavior, and then values and attitudes will follow.
To the extent that you can get campers involved in acts of giving and helping that are their choice and meaningful to them, they are much more likely to interpret that as, “You know what? I chose to do this. This must be a part of my value system.”
Many children say they appreciate camp because it lets them be themselves. In your book you provide compelling research that children will achieve high potential if the adults around them believe that they have high potential. How can those of us who work in camps maximize the opportunity we have to help campers and staff reach their potential?
A starting conversation that I like to have with a group of counselors is to walk them through the data, showing them that the potential they see in their campers is often directly going to influence the amount of potential campers see in themselves. That conversation often starts with the question, “Did you ever have a counselor who you felt saw more potential in you than you initially felt you were capable of?” As people reflect on their own examples and experiences, it often crystalizes how important it is to have someone else believe in you.
For more information about Adam Grant and Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, visit www.giveandtake.com .
Originally published in the 2014 January/February Camping Magazine