Give and Take

Adam Grant

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill


We all have an image of the successful businessman: hard-nosed, determined, maybe even ruthless. He–the image is usually male, but if female, she will have the same qualities–will do whatever needs to be done to make the company triumph: fight the competition, fire people if necessary and let nothing stand in the way of success. After all, business is a Monopoly game to be won by driving your rivals to their knees and pocketing all the cash.

Even those of us who run our personal lives on more generous lines often set aside our unselfishness when we get to the office. We’ve been taught that if we’re going to succeed, we have to take care of Number One. If others can help us, fine. If not, they’d better get out of our way.

The moral dissonance that results can confuse and depress us. We put on armor to go to work, believing that business is a battle. Over time, we may forget to take it off again when we come home, and our personalities grow harsher, more egotistical, more defended. Is there a better way to take care of business–and our souls?

Adam Grant, a professor of business at The Wharton School, offers one in his recent book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (Viking Books, 2013, $27.95). A Malcom Gladwell-like mix of research and anecdotes, the book is a well-written look at how generosity can help and hinder productivity and success in the workplace. And it’s full of surprises.

All human cultures run on reciprocity: the exchange of favors, goods, services and privileges. How we perform these social interactions determines the kind of relationships we’ll have. Grant names three basic styles of reciprocity: taking, giving and matching. Most people use all three styles, adapting their approach to different situations, but we tend to have a favorite one that characterizes our thinking and actions.

Takers, says Grant,

like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place…. “If I don’t look out for myself first,” takers think, “no one else will.”

Givers, by contrast,

tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get…. If you’re a giver…you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs…. In the workplace, givers are a relatively rare breed.

Matchers, the most common style at work, focus on

striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting…. If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.

Grant found that the least productive engineers, medical students, and salespeople were givers–but surprisingly, so were the most successful people in these fields, with takers and matchers filling up the middle. These patterns held true across a wide range of occupations.

Why? Giving is risky, but it can create powerful networks, teamwork and loyalty. Givers tend to disarm envy and unhealthy competitiveness in co-workers, energize themselves and gain the trust of everyone from bosses to customers. All of these benefits can result in success.

But why were givers also at the bottom of the heap? Grant believes that there are two flavors of giving, one which helps the giver, and one which harms. Selfless giving, the harmful kind, is what we usually picture when we think of givers. Selfless givers will sacrifice their own time, interests and energy to anyone who asks. They struggle with burnout and often find they can’t get their own work done. Others’ needs seem more important than their own.

By contrast, successful givers rate high in focusing on others, but they also rank higher than selfless givers in self-interest. Grant writes that self-interest and other-interest are independent motivations that can both operate at the same time:

If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests. Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how and to whom you give.

Grant loads his book with examples, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright, a taker if there ever was one; through Adam Rifkin, master networker and extravagant giver; to John Huntsman, Sr., who believes that being a giver made him rich­he started in business with the goal of making enough to become a philanthropist. (And indeed, there’s evidence that those who give more go on to make more, reversing our common conception of cause and effect.)

Give and Take is full of such paradigm shifts, along with practical ways to expand our own giving in the workplace and beyond. I think it’s an important book and a sign of hope. Perhaps Grant’s work can help restore the sense of the common good in a society grown Scrooge-like, in which the attitude of “I got mine and too bad for you” is thought of as smart and not shameful. If it’s widely read and taken to heart, maybe Give and Take will be revolutionary, indeed.

Beverly Feldt, WorkplaceInteractors

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