Give and Take 

By: Adam Grant



When we look at successful people, what are their common characteristics? According to Adam Grant and conventional wisdom, highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. But how does this come about? What is the essence of success?

Grant suggests that success depends on how we interact with other people. Every time we make an exchange with another person we can approach the interaction with a competitive or collaborative approach. It is this approach which Grant suggests makes some people succeed and others fail. Join us for the next ten minutes to find out how we can take his revolutionary approach to success.

People can give or take

Takers like to tip the exchange benefits in their favour by putting their interests ahead of others. Givers, on the other hand, put others first, giving more than they get.

When we look at society in general, we tend to see Givers as self-sacrificing individuals. But being a Giver does not require this payment. It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others.

According to Grant, in the workplace, giving and taking becomes more complicated. Professionally, few of us act purely like Givers or Takers. We adopt a third style instead: matching. This makes us strive to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting. Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. So which approach wins?

When we look at the characteristics behind Givers and Takers we tend to picture Takers as positive, demanding and progressive, whilst Givers are submissive, compromising and more accepting of second best. Grant’s research tells us an interesting story however. Who is at the bottom of the success food chain? Givers of course. Who is at the top? Surprisingly it’s the Givers again! Takers and Matchers tend to be in the middle. Apparently it’s all about the strategy we take.

According to Grant, people who choose giving as their primary reciprocity style end up reaping rewards. It takes time for Givers to build goodwill and trust, but eventually, they establish reputations and relationships that enhance their success. A positive note is that in today’s connected world, where relationships and reputations are more visible, Givers can accelerate their pace. Grant suggests that we live in an era when massive changes in the structure of work — and the technology that shapes it — have further amplified the advantages of being a Giver.

Consider the following. You work in a service industry. No doubt your organisation operates with groups and teams working towards a common aim. But how? Teams depend on Givers to share information, volunteer for unpopular tasks, and provide help. And as a consequence, as the service sector continues to expand, more and more people are placing a premium on providers who have established relationships and reputations as Givers.

Grant suggests successful Givers have unique approaches to interactions in four key domains: networking, collaborating, evaluating, and influencing.

Networks are based on interactions and relationships, and consequently act as a good litmus test. How do people relate to others in their networks, and what do they see as the purpose of networking?

Often when we meet a new person who wants to connect, we wonder whether he’s acting friendly because he’s genuinely interested in a relationship that will benefit both of us, or because he wants something from us. A Taker. When we see a Taker coming, we protect ourselves by closing the door to our networks, withholding our trust and help. As a result, and to avoid getting shut out, many Takers become good fakers.

But all is not lost. Our defence is that they remain a Taker with self-interest and self-promotion. Grant points out that as Takers gain power, they pay less attention to how they’re perceived by those below and next to them; they feel entitled to pursue self-serving goals and claim as much value as they can and over time, treating peers and subordinates poorly jeopardises their chances.

After all, most people are Matchers: their core values emphasise fairness, equality, and reciprocity. When Takers violate these principles, Matchers in their networks believe in ‘an eye for an eye’, so they want to see justice served. And just as Matchers will sacrifice their own interests to punish Takers who act selfishly, they’ll go out of their way to reward Givers who act generously.

Think of your own network

There are strong ties with close partners and colleagues and weaker ties with those you have merely met or crossed paths with.

According to Grant, strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties serve as bridges: they provide more efficient access to new information. Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know about the same opportunities as we do. Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.

The third type of ties are dormant. These are the ties with former colleagues with whom you have lost regular contact. Grant suggests dormant ties offer access to novel information that weak ties can bring, but without the discomfort. He claims reconnecting a dormant relationship is not like starting a relationship from scratch. When people reconnect, they still have feelings of trust and that’s where Givers have the advantage.

For Takers, reactivating dormant ties is a challenge. If the dormant ties are fellow Takers, they’ll be suspicious and self-protective, withholding novel information. Reconnecting is a totally different experience for Givers. Givers have a track record of generously sharing their knowledge, teaching us their skills, and helping us find jobs without worrying about what’s in it for them, so we’re glad to help them when they get back in touch with us.

Takers have a knack for generating creative ideas and championing them in the face of opposition. Because they have confidence in their own opinions, they feel free of the need for social approval that constricts the imaginations of many people. But does that make Takers better innovators? No. Innovation is not a sole practice. Behind every innovator is a great team and that’s where Givers and Takers differ. According to Grant, the gap between our natural tendencies to attribute creative success to individuals and the collaborative reality that underpins great work is what separates them. Great performance is interdependent, not independent.

In business, independence is seen as a symbol of strength: interdependence as a sign of weakness. This is particularly true of Takers, who tend to see themselves as superior and separate from others. If they depend too much on others, Takers believe, they’ll be vulnerable to being outdone. On the other hand, Givers reject the notion that interdependence is weak. Givers are more likely to see interdependence as a source of strength, a way to harness the skills of multiple people for a greater good.

For a Taker, their driving motivation is to make sure they get more than they give. They count every contribution they make. It’s all too easy for them to believe that they’ve done the lion’s share of the work, overlooking what colleagues contribute. Not so Givers. Givers take care to recognise what other people contribute. When Givers put a group’s interests ahead of their own, they signal that their primary goal is to benefit the group. As a result, Givers earn the respect of their collaborators. And when people act generously in groups, positive effects grow in the minds of group members.

Grant reminds us that spotting and cultivating talent are essential skills in just about every industry; it’s difficult to overstate the value of surrounding ourselves with stars. As with networking and collaboration, when it comes to discovering the potential in others, whether we are a Giver or Taker shapes our approaches and effectiveness.

  • Takers tend to place little trust in other people. Because they assume that most people (like themselves) are Takers, they hold relatively low expectations of the potential of their peers and subordinates.
  • Takers doubts others’ intentions, so they keep a lookout for information that others might harm them, treating others with suspicion and distrust.
  • Takers see successful people as a threat. Even when impressed by another person’s capabilities or motivation, they’re more likely to see this person as a threat, which means they’re less willing to support and develop him or her.
  • Takers are poor at recognising their peers and subordinates. By default, Givers start by viewing people through a positive lens, seeing their potential. By recognising that everyone has potential, Givers focus on motivation.

When people focus on others they’re less likely to worry about egos and minuscule details; they look at the big picture and prioritise what matters most to others. Takers tend to discount feedback that does not support their favourable view of themselves, whereas Givers focus more on the interpersonal and organisational consequences of their decisions, accepting potential compromise to their status in the short term in order to make better choices in the long term.

To convince others to buy our products, use our services, accept our ideas, and invest in us, we need to communicate in ways that persuade and motivate. We need to influence.

According to Grant, there are two fundamental Ways Of Influence: dominance and prestige. With dominance, we gain influence because others see us as strong, powerful, and authoritative. With prestige, we become influential because others respect and admire us.

Takers excel in gaining dominance. They strive to be superior to others. To establish dominance, Takers speak forcefully, raise their voices, promote their accomplishments, and sell with conviction and pride. They win, others lose. Conversely, prestige isn’t zero-sum; there’s no limit to the amount of respect and admiration that we can dole out. This means that prestige usually has more lasting value. Givers are what Grant calls powerless communicators.

Powerless communicators speak less assertively, talk in ways that signal vulnerability, revealing their weaknesses and making use of disclaimers, hedges, and hesitations. Givers are much more comfortable expressing vulnerability: they’re interested in helping others, not gaining power over them, and as Grant suggests, they are not afraid of exposing chinks in their armour. By making themselves vulnerable, Givers can actually build prestige.

Asking questions is a form of powerless communication that Givers adopt naturally. By asking questions and getting to know their customers, Givers build trust and gain knowledge about their customers’ needs. Over time, this makes them better and better at selling. By asking people questions about their plans and intentions, we increase the likelihood that they actually act on these plans and intentions.

From the evidence presented, Grant concludes that being a Giver creates more change of success than being a Taker. To close here are five actions Grant suggests we can use to increase our Giver Quotient:

  1. Test Your Giver Quotient. Are we a Giver or Taker? Where did you feel you stood when you read the Giver/Taker characteristics? How long is your journey likely to be?
  2. Run a Reciprocity Ring. The best way to learn is with a colleague and, as identified, teamwork supports giving. So find a Reciprocity mate.
  3. Help Other People Craft Their Jobs — or Craft Yours to Incorporate More Giving. Make giving part of your business. Mentor. Support. Give without ties.

Embrace the Five-Minute Favour. Can you give someone the support they need within five minutes?Practice Powerless Communication. Speak from a peer position, not from a domineering position. You can’t know everything.

And there you have it, some great advice to help you become a giver, to get more success.