Givers & Takers & Four-Legged Treasures

Giver, Taker,
Matcher, Faker,
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief

I came across Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, only recently, and it left an indelible impression on me. He says there are three groups of people in the world: givers, takers and matchers. Actually, there’s a fourth group, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Most of us know plenty of givers and takers. We resent the ruthless takers, seeing them as energy vampires, but what about the givers we know? If they are too selfless, we see them as doormats. Most of us, at least in our personal relationships, tend to be givers. But professionally, it’s a different story.

In business, which is often characterized as dog-eat-dog, matchers are actually the predominant “type.” Matchers operate on a tit for tat basis. That is, if they give something, they expect something in return, and if they receive something they feel compelled to give something back. That’s because matchers’ core values are fairness, equality and reciprocity. Grant says we shift styles depending on the task. For example, we might become takers when we are negotiating a new job or buying a piece of business equipment, or if we are under exceptional stress or time pressure, but we become givers when mentoring others.

Givers are not necessarily “nice”

Givers of a certain type are anything but doormats. “Successful givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers,” Grant notes. They are not necessarily nicer than the rest of us, “they simply have a different way of pursuing their goals.” But when givers succeed, something interesting happens. Their success spreads and cascades. On the other hand, when takers win, someone else usually loses. Many takers are fakers – they fake being givers to get what they want. (By the way, if you’re wondering if you are a giver or a matcher or a taker, Grant offers a free self-assessment test at Give and Take.)

What are the key ingredients to professional success? Hard work? Talent? Opportunity? A bit of all three, say the experts, and Grant agrees. But he also thinks success is a four-legged creature, and the fourth leg is every bit as important as the first three. He calls it our reciprocity style.

Success is a four-legged creature

Our reciprocity style, which is how we approach and interact with others, has a huge impact on our level of success. The greatest takeaway from Grant’s book is that givers aren’t clustered at the bottom of the totem pole. In fact, research shows they are found at the top – and at the bottom. (This peculiarity will be explained in a moment.) Givers look to help others by making an introduction, giving advice, providing mentoring or sharing knowledge, without any strings attached.

Givers are over-represented at the top and the bottom of most success metrics
The most productive sales people are givers, for example. Why? Because they always put their customers’ interests first, and their customers know it and feel it. What do givers do when they meet somebody new? They adopt an attitude of: “How can I add value to this person’s life, and what could I possibly contribute that might benefit this person?” And they are sincere about it, which creates a huge amount of good will that will likely be returned (not that they ask for it) or will lie dormant until they actually need it.

Why givers are important from a leadership perspective 

Why are givers so important from a leadership perspective? Because givers inspire loyalty. “What givers tend to do in collaboration is assume that credit is not zero sum. If I give you credit for your contributions, that doesn’t necessarily take away from my contribution. That makes it a lot easier to keep people on board in a team over time. It means, typically, that if you’re a leader or a manager, people will follow you if you rotate to a different organization or a different job.”

People will follow you. In my view, that’s leadership.

Givers succeed while takers ultimately fail because in most organizations, matchers tend to punish takers through gossip and ridicule. They believe in a “just” world and takers upset their equilibrium. Likewise, they reward givers with praise and reinforcement because they hate to see others act really generously and not get rewarded for it. Equilibrium again. Matchers would seem to be the glue that holds organizations together. Surely they would also be the nabobs of networking, simply because of their compelling need for equilibrium, right?

Networking nabobs

Actually, no. Matchers tend to build smaller networks than givers or takers. Givers actively seek to help a wider range of people, while takers often find themselves expanding their networks to compensate for bridges burned in previous transactions. But most matchers follow a credo of “I’ll do something for you, if you’ll do something for me,” and that limits their networks.

What about the fourth type of person I mentioned at the beginning of this post? These are what Grant calls “otherish” givers. They are the opposite of selfless givers, who tend to be doormats, often burn out, and frequently appear at the bottom of the success ladder.

Otherish givers are crucial to Grant’s concept of personal success. While they are concerned about benefiting others, just like selfless givers, “they also keep their own interests in the rear view mirror. They will look for ways to help others that are either low cost to themselves or even high benefit to themselves, i.e., “win-win,” as opposed to win-lose.”

The importance of being otherish

In other words, otherish givers give, but with a clear sense of purpose. They want to give but will hold back if giving comes at their own expense. That not only prevents them from pursuing lost causes, it gives them staying power. Research shows that selfless givers are actually less generous in the long run because they run out of energy, they run out of time and they lose their resources because they basically don’t take enough care of themselves.

Otherish givers, on the other hand, engage in “generous tit for tat.” They always start out trusting others, and if someone does them a bad turn, they will turn a blind eye – once. “Never forget a good turn but occasionally forgive a bad one,” is their motto, but they are willing to adjust their reciprocity style if they find themselves engaged with a taker, and become a matcher when necessary.

Give and Take is a deceptively simple title, but there is a lot more to Grant’s book than first meets the eye. It is the result of ten years of insightful and painstaking research on the way people think and behave in organizations, and I think the book’s impact on talent assessment, succession planning and leadership is going to be dramatic and substantial.

By the way, I took Grant’s self-assessment quiz and learned I am far less of a professional ‘giver’ than I thought. Apparently I am not alone in discovering this. So the next time someone I don’t know asks me if they can “pick my brain,” I’m going to say yes. You never know where it might lead.

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