The Chain of Generosity – The Secret to LinkedIn?

In a few days, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving – a holiday ostensibly given over to abundance, gratitude and munificence. bigstock-Hands-Of-Support-37910653It is our opportunity to express thankfulness for the blessings we have. Occurring at the headwinds of the Christmas season, it can create a palpable reflex of giving that carries forward through the end of the year.

Yet what is generosity, anyway: a noble instinct or a subtle calculation for future gain? Michael Norton, Harvard Business School, Kurt Grey, University of Maryland and Adrian Ward, University of Colorado, tested the boundaries of human kindness, and retribution, in an experiment involving the concept of “pay it forward.” Their observations were published recently in an article in Scientific American.

The varying levels of generosity, reciprocity and retribution displayed in the experiment were fascinating but what really struck me was their comment on the link between pay-it-forward generosity and the degree to which an individual viewed their actions within the context of group affiliation. The higher the level of “groupiness” as perceived by the individual, the higher the display of real generosity.  And this is not just action parsed out in equitable bits; I buy you coffee this week and you buy me coffee the next. No, this is action beyond quid pro quo. If you are paying forward to a member of your group, then, more likely than not, you will do so without expectation of immediate return.

Which made me think of the phenomenon of LinkedIn. With over 160 million users, this social media spot for professionals has changed the way people not only search for jobs but, more importantly, how they represent themselves from a career standpoint.

If you are looking for a feeling of groupiness, 160 million users makes for a very big pool. LinkedIn has expanded the notion of “who you know” by tenfold or more. People are using the site to establish networks far beyond what could have occurred pre-LinkedIn. Granted, one could question the depth of these connections but it is hard to argue the impact on how people make professional contacts.

Back to “pay-it-forward”  and LinkedIn. Does participating in LinkedIn make one more professionally generous when it comes to introductions and endorsements? Are people who are active on the site more willing to help someone expand his network than they would otherwise? In the end, is the power of LinkedIn to not only market oneself but to create a community of connected professionals strengthened by some of its “pay-it-forward” features?

I would have to say yes. Maybe the positive side of technology-fostered communities is their ability to create chains of generosity, as the study above found in non-online interactions. While no such chain is perfect (see it’s opposite, the chain of negativity), it can create a very powerful social link that actually expands opportunity, shares knowledge and develops even greater generosity.

This implies that within the professional image some people create in a network like LinkedIn are the attributes of assistance, generosity and interest in others.

Something to consider in the midst of this season of giving.





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