Generosity as a way of living

Culture  Leadership
15 June, 2020

Why leading with a generous heart helps create impact and meaning

As we navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic, the inspiring tales of generosity have been the silver lining. While the crisis has unleashed tremendous hardship, it has also sparked extraordinary generosity. There are so many stories of individuals and organizations reaching out to help others. 

The root of the word ‘generous’ is in the Latin phrase generosus, meaning “of noble birth”. We all know that generosity is a good trait and a virtue worth pursuing, but when the bills come in and we start thinking about our debts and down-payments, being generous becomes less of a priority. However, generosity does not have to be limited to financial means. Generosity can be a way of living. 

I’m delighted that Gayatri Divecha has written this week’s message, to share her learning on what it means to be generous. Gayatri joined Godrej in 2019 and leads Good & Green for the Group. 

Please read on…

When COVID19 was declared a global pandemic and ensuing nationwide lockdowns began, India and the world witnessed an outpouring of philanthropy to help humanity navigate what is arguably one of the most significant global crises since World War II. By early March 2020, global philanthropic contributions had surpassed the US$ 1 billion mark. In India, the PM CARES fund alone has amassed US$ 1.27 billion in donations, in addition to thousands of philanthropic, corporate, and individual efforts, that from the get-go have been directed to worst impacted populations. This quantum of monetary giving is indicative of humanity’s generosity, but can generosity be boiled to the act of giving money alone? 

Through my career in the social space, I’ve witnessed so many acts of generosity, and counterintuitive to what one might think, these have had little to do with givers having ‘more’ and receivers having ‘less’ or ‘being ‘in need’. Every single programme visit I’ve done, be it in urban or rural areas, has involved these communities being generous with me – from making me tea, and offering me food, to telling me about their lives, hope and dreams, and answering numerous questions about their experiences with different programmes. Similarly, I’ve worked with scores of dedicated volunteers who have worked as hard as full-time employees, but without any remuneration. 

What drives this generous behaviour without any visible return? Ironically, as an atheist, the simplest definition of generosity I could find was – 

“Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama 

1. Generosity is a feeling that can take different forms  

We tend to automatically think of generosity as giving money or a material object, but there is much more that has value beyond a price. While every paisa donated is undoubtedly an act of kindness and compassion, and must be celebrated as such, money is a means amongst several that enable generosity to take shape and form.

Generosity springs from an altruistic desire to do good for another, and can be expressed in many ways – materially; in language; through information, knowledge, applying skills; making time; listening; giving feedback and guidance; etc. 

In all forms, it means thinking of another person’s needs, and often thinking of them before our own. It is applicable in any context – in interpersonal relationships, group contexts, organisations, in a community. With social work too, it can be financially supporting a non-profit effort, or volunteering time and/or skills, taking a board seat and steering strategy. 

2. Generosity is a behaviour, that doesn’t equate to a grand selfless gesture, and when proactive, is energising.

“Real generosity towards the future consists in giving all to what is present.” – Albert Camus 

How we behave towards another or a circumstance is nuanced and can vary vastly based on several factors. Similarly, generosity can be expressed in multiple shades – it can be as quick and intuitive as smiling at someone/ something, offering thanks, showing appreciation to another; or as complex as helping someone be self-reliant (like raising a child!). At times, it is giving someone the benefit of the doubt, or meeting a person more than halfway (like calling a friend more often than they call you). 

Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, has done extensive research on generosity behaviour in professional contexts. He found three styles: givers (help other for the joy of it), matchers (help others expecting something in return), and takers (pursue their own interests). According to Grant, givers and takers find themselves at the top and bottom respectively of the success scale; while matchers and takers are in the middle with average outcomes of success.  He defined 6 types of givers:   

  1. Experts – share knowledge.
  2. Coaches – teach skills.
  3. Mentors – who give advice and guidance.
  4. Connectors – who gladly make introductions.
  5. Extra-milers – the first to arrive and the last to leave, always willing to go the extra mile.
  6. Helpers –  provide hands-on and emotional support. 

Grant distinguishes between selfless givers and self-protective givers. While the former can be exhausting, self-defeating and may cause burn out; the latter can be high impact, enjoyable and sustained over a longer time. Generosity burnout is real, with helpers and last milers, its biggest victims. Productive giving, defined by being thoughtful of and acting with an intention on how to help, when to help and who to help, is more impactful and energizing. Grant’s research found dividing acts of generosity into “chunks” of time, versus “sprinkling” little actions every day, improved focus and impact. The key, as with most else, is balance, and every individual’s idiosyncrasies.  

3. Generosity is a leadership strength.

Effectively channeled generosity can unlock immense organisational gains. Giving individuals and teams latitude; space and freedom to grow, learn, make mistakes; delegating worth-while work; offering appreciation can all improve productivity, efficiency and boost morale. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, said, “take care of your people, let them know where they stand, cheer them, never take credit for what they do, and they’ll go to the moon for you.”  

Research has indicated that productive generosity at workplaces, with distinctions drawn between timidity, availability and empathy, and rooted in collaboration, is a defining feature of top performers.  

4. Generosity is a roundabout, not a one-way street.

Behavioural psychologists and economists have debunked the belief that human and animal behaviour is only rational and self-interested – we often behave in irrational and altruistic ways. Grant’s research also shows that generosity has a ripple effect – on oneself and on others. Generosity is good for health – people exhibiting it have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to a variety of diseases. A remarkable Harvard experiment demonstrated that generosity could make people happier. Companies that offered opportunities for employees to give back to their communities saw improvements in job satisfaction and performance. Generous employees are promoted more quickly than their more self-focused peers. 

Over the past three months at Godrej, I’ve witnessed generosity in action in several different ways. Our leadership has been very open, and consistently made time to check-in and ask how we are coping. As colleagues we have displayed generosity with each other – adjusting to varying work from home schedules, sharing recipes and helpful advice. Throughout our businesses, and functions, team members have found ways to support contract workers and local communities with essentials; public authorities with sanitisers and protective gear. I could write a whole other post about these small and large acts of generosity by Godrejites, and that really is the beauty of it – the more one praises and celebrates, the more there is to praise and celebrate.


Many thanks to Gayatri for sharing some great perspectives. 

Do think about what kind of a leader you want to be. How can you become more generous – with your money, your time, your energy and your talents. Lead with a generous heart and a generous spirit. You will find a lot more meaning in what you do. And you will be able to create more impact.

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