Leaders: Read Give and Take by Adam Grant!

Aug 19, 2013Work Uncaged

I’d heard Adam Grant interviewed about Give and Take before it was released, so I pre-ordered the book on Amazon. The premise fascinated me: Givers do well, even in a world of Takers.

As one who has built a career on being generous, I wanted to know the science behind such a claim. Because when you watch movies, or read biographies about business leaders, almost always the cutthroat nature of the person is highlighted. Could it be that nice guys finish first?

Yes! It could be!

A quote at the beginning of chapter 2 reveals the essence of Grant’s focus-altering book. “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Grant does an incredible job of telling stories of amazing givers, surprising the reader, and weaving data into those compelling stories. One of the most important things I took away from the book was learning how to be what he calls “otherish.” He writes that those who are otherish “take care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.” (p. 157).

What he means by that: those who succeed as givers don’t give-give-give without heed to their own needs. They’ve learned to do what Jesus commanded–that we must love others AS we love ourselves. The givers who lived without boundaries and spent a life being taken advantage of eventually failed. But the givers who learned to set boundaries and also learn to love themselves (in a non-self-absorbed way), succeeded.

I had the opportunity to email a few times with Adam. He is busy getting ready to teach his next semester at Wharton, but graciously offered this Q and A to whet your appetite for the book.

So what is the difference between a giver, taker and matcher?

They’re different preferences for reciprocity. Takers love to get more from others than they give. Givers actually enjoy contributing more to other people than they receive in return, and often share knowledge and offer help without any strings attached. Most of us are matchers, falling somewhere in the middle: we like to maintain a fair, even balance of giving and taking.

What’s unique about the success of givers?

My favorite feature of giver success is that it lifts others up, rather than cutting others down. When givers achieve excellence, they do so in ways that enable others to succeed as well, sharing credit, connections, and expertise. For givers, it’s also less lonely at the top: we reserve the greatest admiration and respect for successful people who are generous. A third intriguing pattern is that people support successful givers, rather than gunning for them.

What should takers take away from the book? Should they just be downright ashamed of themselves?

We all have a mix of giver, taker, and matcher moments; our style depends on how we treat most of the people most of the time, and how others judge our motives and actions. For someone who mostly operates like a taker, I think the book has three major lessons. First, there is a time and place for taking behavior. In purely win-lose, zero-sum interactions, a focus on claiming value from others typically leads to the best results. However, most of life isn’t zero sum, which leads to the next two insights. One is that takers should beware of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Taking is often the result of believing that if we don’t look out for ourselves, others will take advantage of us. But this belief often backfires, because the more we act like takers, the more we elicit competitive, cutthroat behavior from those around us. The other is that there may be a better road to success. Another force behind taking is ambition: people see rational self-interest as the most efficient path to power. Yet the evidence shows that in the long run, it’s very difficult for takers to achieve sustainable success. If the goal is to maximize influence and accomplishments, it may be wiser to operate like a matcher or giver, striving to contribute at least as much to others as we receive in return.

Can we get good at recognizing takers in our midst so we don’t get burned or taken advantage of by them?

This is a critical skill. The data show that takers are more likely to claim credit, talking about their successes with first-person pronouns (I and me, instead of us and we). They also tend to spend more time self-promoting, and display flattering photos of themselves. Another intriguing taker pattern is known as “kissing up, kicking down”: takers are careful to manage impressions upward, but it’s tough to keep up the façade in lateral and downward interactions. One of the best ways to identify a taker is to ask peers and subordinates, not bosses.

How has social media affected the givers and takers of the world?

Social media has made it harder for takers to succeed, and easier for givers. When people enter our networks, we can track a great deal of information about their reputations through profiles, posts, and common connections. This means that when takers have burned a bridge, we’re more likely to find out about it, and the generosity of givers is more visible and accessible as well.

What differentiates givers at the top (i.e. those who’ve achieved great success) from those at the bottom (those who have burned out)?

There are three differences that I find especially interesting—they revolve around availability, advocacy, and empathy. First is availability: failed givers are often willing to help anyone at any time. Successful givers set boundaries on when, how, and whom they help, protecting their time and energy more carefully, and pointing their giving in directions that will have the greatest impact. Second is advocacy: failed givers tend to be uncomfortable advocating for their own interests and asking for help, preferring to always be on the giving end of a transaction. Successful givers look to help others, but they also keep their own interests in the rearview mirror: they’re willing to fight for themselves when necessary. Third is empathy: many failed givers fall into the trap of focusing solely on the feelings of others in need, and respond by giving at their own expense. Successful givers empathize, but they also engage in perspective-taking, considering others’ thoughts and interests. This opens the door to identify win-win solutions that meet others’ needs without sacrificing one’s own.

You mention a subset of givers called “other-ish givers.” What’s special about them?

It turns out that there are two types of givers: selfless givers and otherish givers. Selfless givers are those who always put other people’s interests ahead of their own, which frequently results in getting burned or burning out. Otherish givers are people who look to help others in ways that aren’t personally costly, or are even personally beneficial. There’s a wonderful study of “Caring Canadians” who won their country’s highest award for humanitarian service. They found ways to integrate doing well and doing good, which is a powerful example of being otherish: they directed their personal ambitions toward goals that would also benefit others. Although these otherish givers may be less altruistic than selfless givers, they are actually able to give more, because they give in ways that sustain their energy and resources.

These words should make you long to read more! I’d highly encourage EVERY LEADER to run out and buy this book. It served as a huge confirmation to me and it clarified some things I’ve thought about for a long time but could not put into words.