Givers and Takers

By: Jim Bruce

We have all grown up in a give and take world.  Remember the times when you were small and were either willing to share your toys and stuffed animals with your older/younger siblings, or wanted to accumulate as many of them as possible whether you were playing with them or not, or were willing to trade one of your objects for one of your younger/older sibling’s objects.  This behavior continues to play out in our lives throughout our careers.  And, it is the subject of Adam Grant’s 2013 book Give and Take as well as numerous essays and presentations.
[Grant has been recognized as the highest-rated teacher at The Wharton School for five straight years and is widely recognized as an influential management thinker.  At the time he was awarded tenure, he was the youngest tenured professor in the history of the University of Pennsylvania.]
So, what’s this all about?  Every time we interact with someone – at work, at play, at home, … – we make choices around reciprocity;  we choose how we are going interact.  Grant has identified three different basic styles for these interactions which he has called “Takers,” “Givers,” and “Matchers.”  He defines these this way, recognizing that no one always acts in a single style:
Takers fundamentally see interactions at some level as an opportunity to advance their own interests.  They act as if they deserve your help and don’t hesitate to impose on your time and energy.  They try to get as much and contribute as little in return as possible, believing that this is the shortest and most direct path to achieving their own goals.
Givers have a high concern for others but a low concern for themselves.  They look to help others by making an introduction, giving advice, providing mentoring, sharing knowledge, doing a task or project, joining a team, etc.  They set a low boundary when it comes to responding to a spoken or even unspoken request for help.  They tend to ignore their own needs and can easily exhaust themselves, and not have time to meet their own responsibilities.  Burnout is a real possibility.
Matchers, which most of us are to some extent, are somewhere in between.  They try to maintain a balance of give and take:  If I help you, you’ll help me in return.  These individuals trade favors evenly.  They see matching as a set of transactions and expect that the ledgers will balance.  In other words, they keep score.
At this point, you might be asking, “So what?”  Why is this important?  Perhaps, first off, Grant posits, “that how you respond to requests from [others] may be a decisive indicator of where you will end up on the ladder of personal success.” 
His research spanning many fields and countries is interesting:
1.  These three styles exist everywhere.  You find them in engineering and in medicine, you find them in sales and in financial advisory services, you find them in university faculty, staff, and students, and you find them in social situations, etc. 
2.  Givers tend to be overrepresented at both the top and bottom of success metrics.  At the bottom because they are so focused on giving to others that they don’t have time for their own work, which they neglect.  And, they are represented at the top because of the good will and positive reputations they build with those they help and the work that they do.  These activities build strong positive social capital.  Unfortunately, givers also can easily burn out as they try to do their own work as they help others.  Further, takers may also exploit them.
3.  Givers typically make excellent team members.  They collaborate, share ideas, are willing to pitch in and help reach team goals.  They go the extra mile for the success of the team.  Overall, they are good people to have around.
4.  Takers are also over represented at the bottom of the success metrics.  They tend to be widely seen as taking advantage of others.  Takers have very broad networks, in part because when they burn one bridge they have to find new people to seek help from.  Their unwillingness to collaborate and work in a focused way for the good of the team wears thin.  Others often see them as not worthy of being helped.  And, because of their high focus on themselves, they aren’t usually strong team players.
5.  You can often spot a taker by the language he or she uses.  They tend to use first person singular pronouns, “I” and “me” rather than “we” and “us.”  They rarely give credit to others.  Years ago in a world of Indian arranged marriages, a young woman about to become engaged wrote Mahatma Gandhi, then a magazine editor, asking how she should judge a prospective fiancé.  His response, “Don’t look at how he treats you, look at how he treats his servants.”  Or, in today’s language, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him” (variously attributed to Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, von Goethe, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and others).
6. As noted earlier, givers have to be careful not to overdo their giving and as a result not be able to do their own work.  They need to set boundaries and learn to say no, not confusing being helpful and generous with being available for every person and every request all the time.  Some people have a “5-minute” rule – “Can I offer something of unique value to this person that will take five minutes or less?”  Others look for ways to be of help while keeping their own interests in clear view.  They look for ways to help that are low cost or high benefit to themselves.
You likely know whether you are a “giver” or a “taker” or “matcher.”  If you want confirmation, there is a self-assessment here.  It might be worthwhile for you to take some time this week to reflect on this dimension of your style.  I know that doing the research for and writing this essay has been very helpful to me.  If you’re a giver, you might ask about your balance – are you giving too much and not able to complete your work?  What changes might you make?  If you’re a taker, you might ask yourself about your collaboration with others and what changes you might want or need to make.  Further, everyone might also ask how what you’ve learned here might affect the composition of teams you form.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Adam Grant, Give and Take, Viking, 2013.
Adam Grant, Interview by Knowledge@WHARTONGivers vs. Takers:  The Surprising Truth about Who Gets Ahead, April 10, 2013.
Adam Grant, TEDTalk Are You a Giver or a Taker,  Filmed November 2016.
Adam Grant, In the Company of Givers and Takers, Harvard Business Review, April 2013.
Adam Gran and Reb Rebele, Beat Generosity Burnout, Harvard Business Review, April 2017.

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