In Too Many Organizations, We Take Generosity for Granted


Generosity should be a core value in any Great Work Culture.

Instead, it's something we overlook and under-appreciate. Even when it's clear that your own organization isn't filled with toxic colleagues or people bent on out-competing each other, you're probably not paying attention to the generosity around you. You're probably taking generosity at work for granted.

Taking generosity for granted leads to these mistakes:

  • We think generous behavior is "nice to have" in our organizations, but we don't notice the details of generous actions or their impact. We don't think about how many different kinds of generosity there are, or when each of these forms of generosity works well. We don't consider what prompts generosity and what sustains it within an organization.

  • Because we think of generosity as an individual behavior, we leave it up to each person to decide whether and when they'll be generous at work. So, we don't encourage people to be generous, or affirm them when they are generous, or support them when they take the initiative to share with others.
  • We leave it to the individual to figure out how to put their desire to be generous into actions that help others. We don't teach people how to be generous effectively. Some individuals will be skillful in their generosity. They'll know how to offer what they have and feel confident that they have much to offer. Others will be clumsy -- they'll give more than they can handle, they'll give halfheartedly with strings attached, or they'll be weirdly stingy even when they have an abundance of valuable things to offer.
  • Collectively and organizationally, we have little expertise in generosity.

    We hope for people to be generous inside our organizations, but we don't make it a business goal to encourage, recognize, support and reward generosity within the company. We take generosity for granted.

    It's a problem to take generosity for granted.

    It's a problem to take generosity for granted, because our organizations depend on generosity. We can't function without it.

    Even in organizations that are well-run and well-designed, there's always something beyond what we have that we still need to get work done well. Our job descriptions and proscribed roles don't tell us everything we need to do, our budgets and planning don't deliver to our desks every resource we need to have to achieve our organization's goals.

    What fills in the gaps between what we have and what we need in our organizations?


    • Generosity leads us to offer to others the resources we have, and to move out to others the resources they need.

  • Generosity creates "relevant abundance" -- an abundance of the organizational and interpersonal things we need to do great work, when and where we need it.
  • Generosity invites us to offer our best work, to make commitments to each other, to create, to collaborate, to innovate, and to teach each other.
  • Generosity fuels the discretionary contributions, the acts of citizenship, and the acts of caring that a healthy organization can't live without.
  • Generosity is the source of superior organizational performance.

    Rather than take it for granted, how can we nurture generosity in our organizations?

    Recognize all the behaviors that manifest as generosity at work.

    -- Use the words "generous", "generosity", "giving", and "sharing" in your work conversations, without hesitation or embarrassment.

    -- Take note of the different ways that generosity is enacted in your workplace right now. Pay attention, not only to times when members share material resources such as funding, tools, and supplies, but also when members:

    • Contribute ideas and solutions,
    • Offer wisdom,
    • Respond with empathy,
    • Affirm the choices of others,
    • Let go of conditions for repayment, and
    • Use their reputations and influence to sponsor other people or initiatives,
    • and more.
    Once you start looking for generosity, you'll see it everywhere.

    Design Generosity Into Your Work

    -- Make Generosity a cultural value. Follow the lead of Moz, Hubspot and Etsy's Engineering Department, and establish generosity as a core guiding principle for your organization.

    -- Talk about the many different ways that your organization depends on members to be generous at work.

    -- Re-engineer your routines, your systems, and your decision making processes to include giving, sharing, contributing, affirming, and responding as explicit steps. For example, when creating a contract with a supplier, ask how you can support their business through more than just buying their product. Maybe you can help them by testing their beta products and giving them developmental feedback (aka "eat their dog food for them").

    Reward Generosity at Work

    - Acknowledge, Affirm and Amplify generous actions. This is the easiest way to reward generosity at work -- and to be generous at the same time. When you see someone or some group being generous at work, point it out. (Acknowledge). Describe why what they did was generous and how it helped your organization. (Affirm) Then, tell other people about it -- on your intranet, your slack channel, at a team meeting, on Twitter. (Amplify).

    -- Expand your performance criteria to include giving, sharing, helping, supporting, and asking for help -- not just for evaluating the work of individual members, but also for evaluating teams and the performance of the organization itself.

    Generosity is already at work in our organizations. It's just not being nurtured as an organizational capacity or an organizational opportunity.

    By recognizing the ways we're already generous at work, by designing generosity in to our work processes, and by recognizing and rewarding generosity at work, we can build more capacity and more humanity into our work cultures.

    CV Harquail, PhD, is an idea accelerator, consultant, and scholar who works at the intersection of organizational change and digital technology. She teaches management at Stevens Institute of Technology. Her forthcoming book, Generosity At Work, shows organizations how to grow and take a larger leadership role by helping others flourish. Sign up for her newsletter and follow her on twitter @cvharquail.