A New Kind of Training – The Economy of Generosity

blake-ross-croppedBy Blake Anthony Ross, Lead Front-End Developer

In this article, I’d like to offer some observations about generosity within the workplace, but I’ll need you to bear with me for a moment, because I think I would like to introduce these thoughts by first sharing a story about my family.

Growing up, I never felt very close to my grandparents on my mother’s side. Even though they always lived just five miles away from us, and despite having some occasional seasons of life where I saw them fairly often, it just seemed like we never really had a strong relationship. But that changed rather surprisingly when my father died very unexpectedly in the middle of my freshman year of college.

My mother didn’t cope well with the loss of her childhood sweetheart, and suffice it to say that it was as if I lost both my dad and mom in the first several years of aftermath (though our relationship is wonderful today and she is aglow with life like never before). My only sibling–an older brother–had many complicated issues regarding our family, and this tragedy didn’t seem to pull us together. It seemed like he became more isolated and independent.

In this fallout of losing my immediate family, my grandparents on my mother’s side began to reach out. Though I was a student living on campus at Clemson, I still came back to Greenville every weekend to practice or gig with my band. Knowing this, they would invite me over for a home-cooked meal on many weekends before going back to Clemson for another week of school. I began welcoming their invitations to cook for me and visit with them, and we began to be closer than we had been before.

Something very good was taking place, yet something peculiar started to creep in after a few months of this. I started to have the sense that they were giving a lot to me, and I began to vaguely feel like I was being a burden. Here I was, learning to adapt to a newfound life of having to suddenly support myself through college without any immediate family. So in the cold weather of coping and in naive insistence on the independence that felt foisted upon me, I began to decline some of their invitations for dinner, surely using excuses like “Na, Muddy, I have a lot of work to do, I should probably get on back to Clemson this weekend.” (Yes, I called this grandmother “Muddy.” Apparently, that was my word for her as a baby, and it just stuck.)

But now comes the insight. Here I was, about five months into the loss of my immediate family. For the first three months, I experienced an awesome surge and strengthening of relationship with my grandparents. Then I began to decline their invitations—thinking I needed to act nobly and not be a burden—and after a couple months of that, I realized that the surge of relationship I experienced with them subsided drastically. Why was this? It was the first time I saw that resisting their generosity meant resisting relationship with them. And even further: welcoming their generosity was welcoming relationship with them. I know they wanted relationship with me, their grandson, even longing for it very strongly. In a bizarre way, letting them be generous to me was a gift to us!

I began to accept their generous invitations again, and for the years that followed, my relationship with them flourished.

But why on earth am I sharing this with you on an agency website’s blog?

Well, as I hope you know by now, this little mini-series, called “A New Kind of Training,” is all about cultivating vision for the relational skills we bring to our workplace, with the confidence that those skills are in many ways as or more valuable than the professional areas of expertise we possess (in terms of the income, opportunities and satisfaction we will glean from our careers).

So, let me try to abruptly distill the story I just shared into a principle we can embody at work. But to do so, I’m going to need to introduce some new concepts. This may sound out of left field, but bear with me for a moment. Here goes: if given an opportunity to make an interaction at work “transactional” or one of “reciprocal generosity,” aspire for “reciprocal generosity.” What on earth does that mean? Well, again, rather than write philosophically, let me quickly flesh this principle out with a story, and then we’ll call it a day.

Last year, my home computer’s hard drive failed. It was my personal computer’s hard drive, and I risked losing some important practical and sentimental things if the data on that drive could not be recovered. I asked Jesse, one of our IT guys here at Jackson, if he had any experience with hard drive data recovery, hoping to glean some knowledge about what I could do. To my surprise, he offered to see if he himself could recover some data (if I was comfortable handing him my drive). He wasn’t asking for payment, but I assumed this was basically going to be a freelance interaction and that I would pay him for the time spent.

I assured him that I wanted him to let me know what I could pay him for the work, though he insisted he should just look into it first to see what’s possible. Long story short, he did the long, tedious work of data recovery, brought me back the hard drive, hooked me up with what data he could restore, and insisted that he was just seeking to help me out. He wasn’t interested in payment.

Some of you perceptive people will know what I’m saying when I say that there is a peculiarly prideful thing that can make it hard to receive grace-filled generosity, and we may find ourselves insisting on paying something back, crushing the awesomeness of grace and generosity with the dull and deadly weight of “transaction.”

So, I made the decision to let him be generous to me, welcoming what that does to strengthen relationship, and internally I resolved that I would look for an occasion to be generous to him, not at all from a transactional spirit, but from a sense of, “Fun! A very natural window has opened for me to be generous to him, too!” Reciprocal generosity is all about enjoying giving to one another, cognizant of how it strengthens relationship, and it is a totally different spirit than the transactional, “make sure the balances stay even!” sort of approach that can characterize so much lifeless relationship at work.

With all that in mind, here are some questions that may help you take these ideas and run:

  1. Does it resonate with you when I point out that sometimes it is really hard to receive someone’s generosity—especially when you feel the sense of loss it may be causing the other person?
  2. Can you spot how this transactional tendency to make sure either “you don’t give to me or else I will pay you back exactly for what you gave me” can in some circumstances have the result of blockading an occasion for strengthening relationship through glad generosity?
  3. What might it look like for you to explore some of these dynamics in the workplace?

That’s enough for us to brew on for a couple weeks. In the meantime, you know what to do, comrade. Train like your career depended on it!

P.S. It’s been several months since my hard drive failure, but I have my honeymoon photos back, and when several of us go play ping pong in the warehouse during lunch (as we do on most days), Jesse’s forehand shots have a lot more topspin than when he used to play with the ghetto paddles that sat in the warehouse for years, because I spotted an occasion for some reciprocal generosity in the form of a nice carbon-fiber inlaid ping pong paddle.