Are You a Giver or a Taker – And Which is Better?

Are you a giver or a taker – and which is better?

This is a provocative question posed by Adam Grant, the exceptional author, organizational psychologist, and Wharton professor in his powerful TED talk.

According to Grant, there are three types of people in an organization: givers, takers, and matchers.

Givers are generous and compassionate. They live by the mantra, “What can I do for you?” We like interacting with givers – they boost productivity and joy within teams.

Takers occupy the other extreme. They are self-centered and operate under the expectation of “what can you do for me?”

And then there are matchers. A matcher is someone in the middle, maintaining a fairly even balance between give and take. It turns out that most of us are matchers. We sometimes give, looking for ways we can serve. And other times we take, refilling our depleted needs.

The interesting question is this: which role is the most effective and productive way to live your life? Both for you personally, and for the benefit of the organization?

Let’s start by looking at the worst performers in companies. It turns out they are givers.

Givers produce the least amount of work, primarily because they spend so much time doing favors for others. The lowest educational scores come from those people who identify with this statement: “I love helping others.” And when it comes to sales, givers care far too much about their customers that they hold back from selling subpar products that would otherwise lead to much higher sales income.

But we need the givers. Organizations that prioritize helping and sharing and mentoring far outperform their competitors in every metric including profit, employee contentment, and customer satisfaction.

How about takers? Do they perform the best?

Actually, no.

According to Grant’s research, in most jobs takers tend to rise quickly but then derail just as rapidly. And they fall at the hands of matchers. Because matchers maintain an even balance, if someone is out of hand a matcher will bring them back in line. And since the majority of people are matchers, most takers within an organization don’t stay very long at the top.

Therefore, it’s best to be a matcher, right?

Actually, no again.

Because the top performers in most organizations, across most industries, also turn out to be givers. Givers produce the most output, earn the best grades and salaries, and are the top sales people.

It’s a radical dynamic occupying these dual polarities. According to Grant, “givers are over-represented at both the bottom and the top of every success metric that I could track.”

So if being a giver can be so rewarding, and beneficial, Grant poses the question, “How do we create a world where more of these givers get to excel?”

The research suggests an organization that focuses on these three components will do very well:

1. Protect givers from burnout
2. Encourage help-seeking
3. Get the right people on the team, and the wrong people off

Protect givers from burnout

Recognize the value that givers provide to an organization, and check-in regularly to ensure they aren’t burning out. Re-balance workloads if necessary in order to keep givers producing at an elite level.

Encourage help-seeking

Make asking for help the norm, not something to be shamed. It turns out that many people love helping others but often aren’t given the clear opportunity. By creating a culture where help-seeking is cultivated, many more givers will rise to the occasion.

Get the right people on the team, and the wrong people off

It’s not that you need to hire a bunch of givers. It is much more critical that you weed out the takers. In fact, even if you have a lot of givers on the team, just one taker can quickly negate all giver benefits. No one likes working with a taker, especially givers.

Done well, a superbly performing team will be comprised of givers and matchers.

Which leads to a final question for consideration: How do we identify takers so they can be removed (or excluded) from the organization?

Unfortunately it turns out that we’re pretty bad at identifying takers, particularly because they are often so … agreeable. They tend to be warm and friendly.

Of course, many people are agreeable, not just takers. And not all givers are agreeable. So how can we spot a taker?

Grant identified one interview question that he believes can very effectively identify takers, and it is this: Can you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?

The takers will likely be able to provide four names, but here’s the key: the names will be of people who are more influential than they are. Takers love to kiss up and name drop.

Givers, on the other hand, will list people you’ve never heard of. People below them in an organizational or social hierarchy. People without power. People who were helped purely for the joy of serving, not for what was in it for the giver.

So, by eliminating takers from an organization, we create an environment where givers willingly serve others while safely pursuing their own goals. And by taking such steps, we make it far more likely that our company, and all employees, will thrive.

To see more of Adam Grant’s research and excellent books, check out his site.

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