A few years ago, I read Adam Grant’s bestselling book Give and Take. In the book, Grant, one of Wharton’s top-rated professors and one of the world’s most influential management thinkers, explained why helping others drives success. His theory flew in the face of the “Greed is Good” and “dog-eat-dog” mentality that is often thought of as predicting success in corporations. After analyzing studies that spanned 30,000 people in different fields (engineers, sales people, medical students) from different parts of the world, Grant found that top performers in these fields were often what he termed as Givers. These were people who gave to others without any strings attached, without expecting anything in return.
Is It Better To Give?
What was even more interesting was that Givers were disproportionately represented both at the top as well as at the bottom of different success matrices. The top rung in different organizations was occupied by many nice guys and girls. They were finishing first. But the lowest performers in organizations were also Givers. What was behind this striking difference?
To understand it, we have to first know about the two other reciprocity styles that Grant talks about in his book. One of these was made up of people that Grant simply called Takers. Unlike Givers who ask “How can I help?,” Takers just want to know “What’s in it for me?” The third and last style, the majority of the people, were what Grant called Matchers. When Matchers did something for others, they expected that they might do something in return for them. When someone did them a favor, they felt like they were in that person’s debt and wanted to repay it.
While all of us give, take, and match at certain times, overall, our approach falls into one of these broad categories.
In the book, Grant talks about how people with these different styles interact with each other. How can we identify the bad apples, so to speak, the Takers, some of whom could also fake really well and who were often difficult to identify. Was giving always a good thing? What made some Givers successful and others unsuccessful?
As highly sensitive people who can be highly responsive to other people’s emotions, Grant’s book has some important lessons for us. Let’s see how we can preserve the delicate balance between giving and receiving.
- Overemphasizing generosity at the expense of other values doesn’t work: It is obvious that Givers can be prone to burnout if they don’t also stop and receive, or if they are loaded with work (like in an office setting) just because they give so freely. As someone who identifies with being a Giver, as I have grown older, I have seen how giving too much, without discrimination doesn’t make you happier or a better person. In fact, it makes you resentful and tired. While giving without calculations is wonderful, there is a lot to be said about who and what we are giving to. We are mostly safe giving to Matchers because they will give in return. But giving to Takers defeats the very purpose of giving. Grant talks about how Givers give for the greater good, even at a cost to themselves. But they and their greater purpose is only served when they give to people who will pay it forward. For me, when I see other people who I regard as Givers getting burnt out, getting the short end of the stick or getting increasingly resentful as they get older, I think of my own dangers, my own traps – the times when giving so freely can end up with you becoming a food source for others. I am also starting to see more and more that generosity is just one value. When I was younger, I used to think that Matching is very transactional. But as years pass, I have started seeing that what Matchers practice emphasizes another important value – the value of fairness. Fairness is as important to move towards as generosity. In this context, I think understanding that the same path is not a path of growth for everyone is also important. The common maxim that teaches to Give without calculations is important for Matchers to extend themselves. But if your natural style is already to give without calculations, then you have to guard against the pitfalls of giving to the wrong people or giving without discernment. Grant tells us that Givers benefit from asking why they are giving, to whom they are Giving, and for what purpose. This awareness is what separates the “losing” group of Givers from the “winning” group.
- Identifying Takers is Important: Grant talks about how while a wonderful Giver might not promote feelings of giving in others, a Taker in an organization is a very dangerous thing. Takers help create a culture where everyone is on the defensive and feels self-protective and less open to giving. It can be very hard to identify Takers. Grant’s research found that agreeableness – being pleasant, charming or non-confrontational has nothing to do with whether a person is a Giver or a Taker. There are pleasant and unpleasant Givers, in the same way as there are pleasant and unpleasant Takers. While we all know or have been people-pleasing Givers, there are Givers who give in action, but might be more critical, sceptical, and challenging than our usual image of what Givers look like. These are important people to have in organizations, Grant tells us. They are the ones willing to call out the problems, willing to say hard things. They are also the ones willing to do the work to bring about that change. So, it’s important to really listen to actions, and not simply words. In a similar fashion, while it might be relatively easy to spot a disagreeable Taker, it is hard to spot an agreeable, charming Taker. Again, look out for actions. Takers usually kiss up, and kick down. These are the people who will show a generous face to their bosses but treat their employees or people who report to them badly. In the end, Grant says, Takers are often brought down by Matchers, who believe in treating people the way they’ve been treated. A social clue about Takers is their grandiosity. For example: In an interview, Grant says that social media can sometimes make it easier to spot Takers. Their profile pics, on say Facebook, look significantly better than they do in their real life. Takers also do not ask as many questions when trying to solve problems. They think of success as a zero sum game. Either they win, or they lose, and asking questions, to them, seems to reveal a one-down position. After a loss, they look to blame other people. This is in direct contrast to Givers who often take a bigger share of the responsibility.
- Value and build on your natural capacity to give: One of the big advantages that Givers have is that they inspire loyalty in people who work with them. They can consciously build on this capacity by mentoring and coaching people who have the willingness and capacity to pay it forward. This is what broadens their circles of influence and makes them a force for good. So, how can people who want to be successful and also give help others? One of the Givers in Grant’s book, Adam Rifkin, was listed by Fortune as the best networker, with more connections on LinkedIn to the most powerful people in the world, than anyone else. It turns out that was because Rifkin is a Giver, “a sun with many different solar systems,” as Grant says. One of the rules that Rifkin practiced for himself was a 5-minute favor. This could mean introducing two people who could help each other or listening to an entrepreneur pitch an idea and giving some quick feedback. Rifkin consciously searched for ways to do this, ways in which he could help that did not cost him a whole lot. But then, he went a step further than this. He asked the people he was helping for help, but not for himself, but someone else in his network. Grant talks about how Rifkin was helping create a Pay it Forward culture and how he was truly leveraging the power of giving by creating a network that was helping each other. This is just one example of conscious, thought-out giving that Grant talks about in his book. This awareness of how they can effectively give is what separates Givers from falling into the common helper’s trap of neglecting themselves and instead helps create a culture of giving that helps everyone.
What do you think? Grant’s book has some interesting ideas both about how giving can either be a great strength or become a quality that holds us back. How might you be able to give in a more conscious manner instead of spending out your energy in places or on people who might drain, or worse, use you?