The Gift of Givers

“Are you a giver or a taker?” That intriguing question is the title of organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s recent TED Talk. “I want to live in a world where givers succeed,” he says, “and I hope you will help me create that world.” In this hilarious, well-researched Talk, he teaches us how we might do so. I hope you’ll listen, agree and act. As Grant explains, you’ll find greater success for your organization if you do.

So, what is a giver and what is a taker? “Takers are self-serving in their interactions;” for them, “it’s all about what can you do for me.” A giver, on the other hand, is “somebody who approaches most interactions by asking, ‘What can I do for you?’”

There’s a third type of individual. Grant “surveyed over 30,000 people across industries around the world’s cultures,” and he “found that most people are right in the middle, between giving and taking.” They embody a “third style called ‘matching.’ If you’re a matcher, you try to keep an even balance of give and take: quid pro quo — I’ll do something for you if you do something for me.”

Which of these three types of people does better in the workplace? Grant “studied dozens of organizations, thousands of people, … measuring their productivity.” He found, “unexpectedly, [that]  the worst performers in each [job] were the givers.” Who were the best performers? “In every job, in every organization …, the best results belong to the givers again.” The bottom line: “Givers are overrepresented at the bottom and at the top of every success metric” Grant has tracked.

“There’s a twist here, because givers are often sacrificing themselves, but they make their organizations better.” As Grant explains, evidence shows that “the more often people are helping and sharing their knowledge and providing mentoring, the better organizations do on every metric we can measure: higher profits, customer satisfaction, employee retention — even lower operating expenses.” So, we want givers in our organizations, and we want them to thrive. This “raises the question: How do we create a world where more of these givers get to excel?”

That’s the question Grant tackles in his Talk, teaching us “what it takes to build cultures where givers actually get to succeed.” With much humor and great examples, Grant offers us three ideas. “The first thing that’s really critical,” he explains, “is to recognize that givers are your most valuable people, but if they’re not careful, they burn out. So you have to protect the givers in your midst, … helping [them] set boundaries.”

Second, “you actually need a culture where help-seeking is the norm; where people ask a lot. … Help-seeking isn’t important just for protecting the success and the well-being of givers. It’s also critical to getting more people to act like givers, because the data say that somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of all giving in organizations starts with a request. But a lot of people don’t ask. They don’t want to look incompetent, they don’t know where to turn, and they don’t want to burden others.”

Finally, “the most important thing, if you want to build a culture of successful givers, is to be thoughtful about who you let onto your team.” Critically, “the negative impact of a taker on a culture is usually double to triple the positive impact of a giver. If you “let even one taker into a team, … you will see that the givers will stop helping. They’ll say, ‘I’m surrounded by a bunch of snakes and sharks. Why should I contribute?’ Whereas if you let one giver into a team, you don’t get an explosion of generosity. More often, people are like, ‘Great! That person can do all our work.’”

So, “effective hiring and screening and team building is not about bringing in the givers; it’s about weeding out the takers. If you can do that well, you’ll be left with givers and matchers. The givers will be generous because they don’t have to worry about the consequences. And the beauty of the matchers is that they follow the norm.”

How to weed out the takers? We tend to “assumed that agreeable people [are] givers and disagreeable people [are] takers.” But Grant “was stunned to find no correlation between those traits, because it turns out that agreeableness-disagreeableness is your outer veneer: How pleasant is it to interact with you? Whereas giving and taking are more of your inner motives: What are your values? What are your intentions toward others?” To develop a successful culture of giving, we must pay attention to “the other two combinations,” disagreeable givers and agreeable takers.

The “disagreeable givers in our organizations” are “gruff and tough on the surface but underneath have others’ best interests at heart, … ‘like somebody with a bad user interface but a great operating system.’” They are “the most undervalued people in our organizations, because they’re the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear. We need to do a much better job valuing these people as opposed to writing them off early, and saying, ‘Eh, kind of prickly, must be a selfish taker.’”

“The other combination we forget about is the deadly one — the agreeable taker, also known as the faker,” the person “who’s nice to your face, and then will stab you right in the back.” Grant’s “favorite way to catch these people in the interview process is to ask the question, ‘Can you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?’ The takers will give you four names, and they will all be more influential than them, because takers are great at kissing up and then kicking down. Givers are more likely to name people who are below them in a hierarchy, who don’t have as much power, who can do them no good.”

Grant summarizes: “if we do all this well, if we can weed takers out of organizations, if we can make it safe to ask for help, if we can protect givers from burnout and make it OK for them to be ambitious in pursuing their own goals as well as trying to help other people,” We can teach our teams that “instead of saying it’s all about winning a competition, … success is really more about contribution.”

“I believe that the most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed,” Grant concludes. I agree with him. And as he shows us in his TED Talk, it’s also the most effective way to succeed. Take note and give it a try.

What do you think? What’s your favorite Ted Talk? Join the discussion and let me know. I want to hear from you!

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