The Give and Take in Teams

When I was in elementary school, my parents had an account at the local deli so my brother and I could order sandwiches for lunch. I soon discovered (much to my parent’s dismay) that we could also use to purchase copious amounts of delicious Reese’s ice cream bars for me and my classmates. Some of my peers saw this as me wanting to connect with them. (For the most part, they ended up being my friends.) Others, it turned out, really just wanted to eat the ice cream–no matter who was buying it

I’ve noticed that there are certain parallels between my ten-year-old self making new friends by bartering with ice cream, and how give and take social learning translates in an office setting and affects our working relationships.

When you voluntarily raise your hand to take on a mundane tasker or assignment that no one wants to do in your team or office, it can have a positive ripple effect. Giving shows that you want to cooperate by sacrificing a personal disdain for a task to benefit the larger group; this act of selflessness may encourage others to do the same. It turns out, according to Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, that at work, most people function as either: takers, matchers, or givers. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. We all know and admire those types of people!

The success of an organization is largely dependent on a balance of these three types of employees, as it’s been cited that participation, cooperation, and collaboration in the workplace are perhaps the most important influences on productivity in high performing teams. This is particularly important in a multifaceted, global organization like the State Department. When each person relies on an input or task completion from others, things go smoothly; when one person is uncooperative, the entire process slows down. I often think about the importance of this type of responsiveness and reciprocation while running clearances through the building and consistently pestering people for the “ok” I need to push paper forward to meet a deadline.

But there are large contextual circumstances to why we choose to give, take, or match related to leadership and effective team dynamics, as well. For me, that magic formula is centered around the trust and respect necessary to build a strong sense of group identity, and the confidence to work effectively as a team.

In the Collaboratory, the core of our work is built on trust and respect, and it shows how we approach our projects.

For example, I was hesitant when our director, Amy Storrow, had an idea for us to sit down every Tuesday for two hours to read long books and articles in order to advance our expertise and knowledge on certain subjects relevant to our work. There was no way I could spend all that time taking part Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), I thought, there was so much work to do! But instead of fighting against it, I trusted the ambiguity knowing that my leadership was asking us to do something that was not only beneficial for my own professional development, but for the team’s growth as well. DEAR is now my favorite part of Tuesdays (formerly the worst day of the week in my mind).

Lending your time, ideas, and hard work are all related to how much you trust and respect the people that you are giving those irreplaceable things to. Sometimes that trust and respect comes from buying someone ice cream, and other times you gain it from those around you by being the first person to raise your hand to volunteer and take on an assignment, or as a manager, allocating time for your staff to build their own professional skills.

The architecture and innovativeness of the successful organization depends on choosing and embracing trust and respect for all of its employees, even if it’s uncomfortable, in order to give a little more and foster the growth of the team, office, and organization.

p.s. Tom Wujec, a Fellow at Autodesk, created something called the marshmallow challenge as remarkably fun and instructive design exercise that encourages teams to experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity through rapid prototyping and problem solving- all of which lie at the heart of effective innovation. This simple team-building exercise (involving dry spaghetti, one yard of tape and a marshmallow) takes just an hour, and the results of who can build the tallest tower with those ingredients may surprise you. If you and your team are looking for a little inspiration to improve your work together, here are the instructions, and give it a shot!

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