From Giving to Innovating: Lessons from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea

Originally published on Wired.com.


Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce 2012. Image: piyush.k/Flickr

Rock stars are classic takers. They want to take our attention, they want to take money, and they want to take credit.

Yet, as Wharton professor Adam Grant discusses in his new book, Give and Take, research shows that takers are doomed to mediocrity. They won’t get as far as givers because they burn too many bridges. Givers, those who are generous with their help, are found at both the top and bottom of organizational and professional hierarchies. Givers at the bottom are the ones who give so much that they never get a chance to advance themselves. They are the self-sacrificing ones. In contrast, the givers at the top manage to keep their own agenda in place – they only give to the extent that it does not take away from pursuing their own ambitions. And they are not afraid to ask for help in return, if they need it.

In fact, the rock n’ roll world is full of givers, people whose generosity facilitates their own career and those of others. Take Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “It’s funny, looking back at our band,” he toldRolling Stone Magazine in 2006, “Throughout every situation – death, drug abuse, losing a member – when things went well, it was because we were honest and giving. And things didn’t go well when we weren’t.”

Flea acted like a giver by putting the group’s goals and mission above all other interests. To help the Peppers overcome their many setbacks, Flea supported them musically, helping them develop as players and composers. He also supported them personally, visiting singer Kiedis in rehab and pulling guitarist Frusciante out of his self-inflicted isolation and back into the band.

Why is giving is beneficial for innovation?

• Givers tend to grow bigger and more diverse networks of relationships. Through these networks they are exposed to an influx of new ideas, information, and opportunities. In fact, Flea has collaborated with numerous musicians outside of the Chili Peppers, including Alanis Morisette and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

• Givers create a safe environment for making mistakes and experimenting. Grant cites a study of software engineers who worked on a variety of development projects. Those who shared ideas without expecting anything in return were more likely to be part of a significant innovation because the people who worked with them felt that it was safe to exchange information. Even when giving negative feedback, givers do it in such a way that the receiver feels appreciated and respected. They build the other person up rather than knocking him or her down. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have always jammed their songs into existence, with everyone’s productivity benefitting from Flea’s ecstatic exclamations of enthusiasm.

• Givers bring out the best in others. Givers are genius makers – they see the potential in another person’s work and help facilitate them so that they can contribute at their highest level. As guitarist John Frusciante said, “I didn’t realize how much what I was playing had to do with Flea. I thought I was the goods, with or without him.” But, as he found out when he tried out a solo career, “That wasn’t the case.”

By getting givers on the team and encouraging giving behavior, work teams will see their innovation capacity soar. Are you are giver? Check yourself out on Grant’s website: www.giveandtake.com