Posted by on May 12, 2015 Views: 1290

Give and Take: Becoming a Successful Giver


In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant describes three categories of people found in the workplace: “takers,” “matchers”, and “givers.” You probably see them in action every day. Takers try their best to get what they can from coworkers, making sure they always come out ahead. Matchers only give as much as they get, always on the lookout for someone who can help them to get ahead. Givers are willing to contribute, bending over backwards, without considering what they’ll gain (or lose) in return.

When measuring success at work, Grant’s research shows that givers are overrepresented at both ends of the success spectrum. Some givers are classified as doormats and burnouts whereas as others are superstar performers and motivators.

How does a giver swing the pendulum from being a doormat to a role model?

Being a giver does have distinct advantages over being a taker. Givers tend to be keen observers of behavior. They’ve had experience dealing with all kinds of people—from those who are entirely selfish to those who are altruistic.

They can pick up on nuance and subtlety. Their encounters provide givers with a broad base for judging someone else’s actions. This understanding of human behavior should enable givers to adequately screen out those who might take advantage.

However, to succeed, Grant says the giver has to suppress the desire to be empathetic and selfless. He states “Empathy is a pervasive force behind giving behaviors, but it’s also a major source of vulnerability.” [1] In interactions, Grant says to resist the temptation to imagine what the other person is feeling. Energy is better spent on figuring out what that person is thinking. He says to avoid the trap of giving first and asking questions later.

Givers also tend to be uncomfortable being assertive. Grant has a wonderful tactic for overcoming this hurdle. He suggests that givers see themselves as “agents” acting in the interest of others, rather than just for themselves. For instance, if a giver is negotiating a salary increase, he or she should bear in mind that the extra money is not for personal gain, but for the benefit of the family. The giver hasn’t stepped over to the “takers” side—but he or she remains a giver. This approach also lessens the discomfort that might accompany taking a more assertive position in negotiations.

Becoming a successful giver

In a nutshell, here are Grant’s suggestions for becoming a “successful” giver—by carefully handling choices that we face everyday. Be nimble and flexible and don’t stick to a single “one size fits all” style of interaction.

  • Start by trusting the other person’s intentions.
  • Carefully scan, to detect any sign that the person might be a taker.
  • If you sense you are working with a taker, switch gears from empathizing to analyzing what the other might be thinking (rather than feeling).
  • Change from your position of unconditional giving to Grant’s strategy of “generous tit for tat.”

Grant explains this strategy (which comes from game theory) as one in which players start out working cooperatively until someone competes. Then both players switch to competitive strategies. The “generous” part arises when one player responds to a competitive move with a cooperative move. So, using Grant’s terminology, a “giver” might switch to a “matcher‘s” strategy when dealing with a “taker,” but shifts back to being a giver from time to time, allowing the taker to redeem himself.

How to put these ideas into practice

Why not start looking at one area of your work life and see if you can identify givers, matchers, and takers. In January 2015, Beth Kanter wrote and interesting and inspiring post about networking: Smarter Nonprofit Networking: Building a Professional Network That Works for You. She mentions strategies for categorizing members of your network and refers to Adam Grant’s work in her post.

[1] Adam Grant, Give and Take (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 195