Be a Giver: Think of Others and Get Ahead

According to Wharton Professor Adam Grant in his book Give and Take, there are three types of people in the world when it comes to reciprocity styles: givers, takers, and matchers.

  • Givers: give more than they get. Givers focus on other people’s needs.
  • Takers: take more than they give. Takers focus on their own needs. They believe that the world is competitive and that to succeed, they need to be better than others.
  • Matchers: believe in “tit for tat,” an even exchange of favors.

Which reciprocity style is most successful? Is it the people that are the most dominant and competitive — the takers? Or is the matchers, the people who believe firmly in even exchange — “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine?” You may be surprised to learn that it’s givers that are the most successful.

Now, which reciprocity style is least successful? It’s also givers. Matchers and takers end up in the middle. Grant provides evidence from numerous psychological studies that on the success ladder, “the worst performers and the best performers are givers; takers and matchers are more likely to land in the middle.”

Wait, what? How can givers be the most and the least successful people?

It’s because there are two types of givers: selfless givers and “otherish” givers. Selfless givers go out of their way to help others at the expense of getting their own work done, and they end up at the bottom of the success ladder. Otherish givers look out for their own interests in addition to giving to others. The otherish approach maximizes the benefits of being a giver, while protecting against the downsides (getting burned out, or being taken advantage of by takers). Otherish givers end up at the top of the success ladder.

Why are otherish givers more successful?

Givers establish reputations and relationships that enhance their success over the long term. Their approach to communication and negotiation builds trust, encourages openness, and often creates value for all parties rather than simply claiming value. Although the giver approach may not be fruitful in the short term, it’s incredibly valuable in the long run.

There are two other reasons why givers are more successful: teams and service.

Much of the work we do today involves working in teams. As Grant writes:

“Today, more than half of American and European companies regularly use teams to get work done… Teams depend on givers to share information, volunteer for unpopular tasks, and provide help… As we organize more people into teams, givers have more opportunities to demonstrate their value.”

In addition to teams, givers often succeed because they are in service-oriented roles.

“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… You want your key service providers to be givers. You hope your doctor, lawyer, teacher, dentist, plumber, and real estate agent will focus on contributing value, not on claiming value from you.”

The same can be said for the leader of a team — you want your leader to contribute value or help you create value, not just be focused on claiming value for himself or herself.

Grant writes about how givers end up being successful in three different dimensions of work: (1) building networks, (2) collaboration, and (3) communication.

Building networks

We all know networks are important because they give you access to information, skills, and influence. Givers are much better at building networks than takers and even matchers for two reasons: broader networks and dormant ties.

First, givers have broader networks because they’re not limited to only matching relationships. Matchers have a much narrower network because they insist on quid pro quo every time. Givers don’t necessarily limit their giving to people who can help them in the near future. “At its core, the giver approach extends a broader reach, and in doing so enlarges the range of possible payoffs, even though those payoffs are not the motivating engine.” The breadth of their networks means that they are more likely to get access to opportunities, information and power that will help them.

Second, givers can leverage the power of dormant ties — “the trust of strong ties coupled with the novel information of weak ties.” Grant shares research that people are more likely to benefit from weak ties.

“Strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties provide 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.”

Dormant ties are previously strong ties that are now weak, but can be re-activated. A dormant tie is someone you knew well from an earlier time in your life or career — someone from school, or a previous job. Givers, who have been generous with their help in the past, accumulate a number of these dormant ties over their lives. “When they truly need help, givers can reconnect with dormant ties, receiving novel assistance from near-forgotten but trusted sources.”

Takers, of course, typically don’t succeed in building networks. They burn through relationships and end up getting shut out of a network. To avoid this fate, some of them end up becoming fakers. Eventually people recognize this behavior and penalize them by sharing reputational information. “Over time, as their reputations spread, takers end up cutting existing ties and burning bridges with potential new ties.”

Collaboration

Givers are much better at collaborating with others than matchers and takers, which enables them to accomplish much more within teams. There are three reasons why givers succeed in collaboration: expedition behavior, avoidance of responsibility bias, and closing the perspective gap.

First, givers exhibit expedition behavior, which earns the trust and respect of their teammates.

“Expedition behavior involves putting the group’s goals and mission first, and showing the same amount of concern for others as you do for yourself… When givers put the 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.”

Second, givers don’t fall prey to responsibility bias, and gladly share credit with their team for any achievements.

The responsibility bias occurs because “we have more access to information about our own contributions than the contributions of others. We see all of our own efforts, but we only witness a subset of our partners’ efforts. When we think about who deserves the credit, we have more knowledge of our own contributions…This responsibility bias is a major source of failed collaborations. Professional relationships disintegrate when entrepreneurs, investors, inventors, and executives feel that their partners are not giving them the credit they deserve, or doing their fair share.”

Givers focus their attention on what others have contributed. They often shoulder the blame for failures, and give their partners more credit for successes. This approach earns them significant trust and respect from their teams and partners.

Finally, givers close the perspective gap and put themselves in others’ shoes. The perspective gap occurs “when we’re not experiencing a psychologically or physically intense state, we dramatically underestimate how much it will affect us.”

Givers see beyond the perspective gap. When asking for something or giving feedback, givers ask themselves: “How will the recipient feel in this situation?” They can therefore see where others are coming from, and what they are feeling. As a result, they are able to encourage and process diverse perspectives, ideas, and feedback — which often results in them making better decisions. They can also effectively provide support to and motivate their teammates, because they understand how they are feeling in this situation.

Takers don’t exhibit expedition behavior, because they’re too focused on their own needs and goals rather than those of the team. They often fall prey to the responsibility bias, assigning much more credit to themselves than to their partners. As a result, they’re unlikely to share credit for success and are quick to blame their partners for failure. And takers rarely close the perspective gap. “They’re so focused on their own viewpoints that they never end up seeing how others are reacting to their ideas and feedback.”

Communication

As Grant writes, “Our success depends heavily on influence skills. 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.”

There are two different approaches to influencing others: dominance and prestige. “When we establish dominance, we gain influence because others see us as strong, powerful, authoritative. When we earn prestige, we become influential because others respect and admire us.” Givers build influence through prestige — earning the respect, admiration, and trust of others.

Givers are more successful at influencing others, particularly skeptical audiences over which they have no formal authority, for two reasons: asking questions and seeking advice.

First, givers are more likely to ask questions rather than make powerful assertions up front. This approach shows partners that the giver cares about their interests. As a result, these partners respect the giver, and feel more comfortable sharing information. By asking questions, givers are learning what their partners value, which in turns makes it easier to develop and communicate a proposal that is likely to be attractive. “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.”

Grant writes about an approach called self-persuasion, which relies heavily on asking questions. With self-persuasion, the speaker is not necessarily trying to “persuade” the audience, which can sometimes put people on the defensive. Instead, she is asking questions that will enable the audience to reach the desired conclusion and persuade themselves.

A successful lawyer shared with Grant his approach for arguing in front of jurors.

“‘The art of advocacy is to lead you to my conclusion on your terms. I want you to form your own conclusions: you’ll hold on to them more strongly. I try to walk jurors up to that line, drop them off, and let them make up their own minds.’ Thoughtful questions pave the way for jurors to persuade themselves. According to Aronson, ‘in direct persuasion, the audience is constantly aware of the fact that they have been persuaded by another. Where self-persuasion occurs, people are convinced that the motivation to change has come from within.’”

Second, givers are more likely to ask for advice, which is an effective strategy in situations when they lack power and authority. “Seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates. Advice seeking tends to be significantly more persuasive than the taker’s preferred tactics of pressuring subordinates and ingratiating superiors.”

There are many benefits to advice seeking: learning, perspective taking, commitment, and flattery. By seeking advice from others, we may learn new information or options. We ask others for their advice, we ask them to take our perspective. “In order to give us a recommendation, advisers have to look at the problem or dilemma from our point of view.” Seeking advice is a way to invite someone to make a commitment to us — by sharing their time or knowledge, they have committed to us and are more likely to help us in the future. Finally, “people love to be asked for advice.” It makes them feel valued, important, and helpful. The key is that the advice seeking must be genuine. If others believe that you’re being inauthentic when you seek their advice, they may feel manipulated and shut you out.

Takers “specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices to assert their authority, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments, and sell with conviction and pride.” This powerful communication does sometimes establish dominance, and therefore influence. However, in other cases, powerful communication backfires and produces resistance. In a long-term relationship, such as a team or a service relationship, powerful communication “loses the respect and admiration of others.”

Takers are less likely to ask questions, but instead jump straight to their answer. They are unlikely to ask for advice, because they think it signals weakness in a highly competitive world. As a result, takers miss out on the many benefits of asking questions and seeking advice.

Bringing it all together

Adam Grant has done a phenomenal job explaining the different reciprocity styles of givers, takers, and matchers. Using a number of research studies, he has shown why and how otherish givers rise to the top of the success ladder. Although I didn’t cover it here, Grant also did a great job explaining why and how selfless givers fail, and how to avoid the fate of burning out or becoming a doormat for others by becoming an otherish giver.

Grant’s perspective is that, in a world where we often work in teams and provide services to others, we should strive to adopt a giver mentality. Givers are more successful because they establish reputations and relationships that enhance their success over the long term.

In three different dimensions of work — building networks, collaboration, and communication — givers are more effective. With building networks, givers build broader networks and leverage the value of dormant ties. With collaboration, givers demonstration expedition behavior, don’t fall victim to responsibility bias, and close the perspective gap. With communication, givers tend to ask questions and seek advice, which builds trust, increases their own knowledge, and builds commitment with their audience.

After reading Give and Take, I am definitely inspired to become even more of a giver in my life and work. Conversely, I will be a lot more aware of takers and matchers, and adjust my reciprocity style when interacting with them to mitigate risk. If all of us could operate more like givers, our teams would be a lot more effective, and we would build stronger and more trusted relationships with our partners.