Adam Grant has previously spoken about givers putting up boundaries or limiting their generosity as a way to protect themselves against over-giving. At Legitimate Leadership we prefer to think about two forms of giving: generosity and courage. Appropriate giving is therefore about acting with generosity or courage, whichever is more appropriate at the time. What I find really interesting in Adam Grant’s piece is his statement that “the negative impact of a taker on a culture is double to triple the positive impact of a giver”. I absolutely agree with this finding. The implication is that the way to build a culture of givers is to confront and deal with takers. In Legitimate Leadership we talk about takers as victims, and organisations with too many takers as being beset by a victim disease. So the route to increase the number of givers in an organisation is to confront and address victim behaviour whenever and in whomever it evidences itself.
OUR SUMMARY OF THIS VIDEO: I spend a lot of time in workplaces, and I find paranoia everywhere. Paranoia is caused by people that I call “takers.” Takers are self-serving in their interactions. It’s all about what you can do for me. The opposite is a giver. It’s somebody who approaches most interactions by asking, “What can I do for you?”
Of course, not all takers are narcissists. Some are just givers who got burned one too many times. Then there’s another kind of taker that we won’t be addressing today, and that’s called a psychopath.
I was curious, though, about how common these extremes are, and so I surveyed over 30,000 people across industries and around the world’s cultures.
I found that most people are right in the middle between giving and taking. They choose this 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. And that seems like a safe way to live your life.
But is it the most effective and productive way to live your life?
The answer to that question is a very definitive … maybe. I studied dozens of organizations, thousands of people. I had engineers measuring their productivity, I looked at medical students’ grades – even salespeople’s revenue. And, unexpectedly, the worst performers in each of these jobs were the givers.
The engineers who got the least work done were the ones who did more favors than they got back. They were so busy doing other people’s jobs, they literally ran out of time and energy to get their own work completed. In medical school, the lowest grades belong to the students who agree most strongly with statements like, “I love helping others,” which suggests the doctor you ought to trust is the one who came to med school with no desire to help anybody.
And then in sales, too, the lowest revenue accrued to the most generous salespeople. I actually reached out to one of those salespeople who had a very high giver score. And I asked him, “Why do you suck at your job?” I didn’t ask it that way, but “What’s the cost of generosity in sales?” And he said, “Well, I just care so deeply about my customers that I would never sell them one of our crappy products.”
But actually, it turns out there’s a twist here, because givers are often sacrificing themselves, but they make their organizations better. We have a huge body of evidence – many, many studies looking at the frequency of giving behavior that exists in a team or an organization – and 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 givers spend a lot of time trying to help other people and improve the team, and then, unfortunately, they suffer along the way.
So I want to talk about what it takes to build cultures where givers actually get to succeed.
I wondered, then, if givers are the worst performers, who are the best performers? Let me start with the good news: it’s not the takers. Takers tend to rise quickly but also fall quickly in most jobs. And they fall at the hands of matchers.
If you’re a matcher, you believe in an eye for an eye – a just world. And so when you meet a taker, you feel like it’s your mission in life to just punish the hell out of that person. And that way justice gets served.
Well, most people are matchers. And that means if you’re a taker, it tends to catch up with you eventually; what goes around will come around. And so the logical conclusion is: it must be the matchers who are the best performers. But they’re not.
In every job, in every organization I’ve ever studied, the best results belong to the givers again. Take a look at some data I gathered from hundreds of salespeople, tracking their revenue. What you can see is that the givers go to both extremes. They make up the majority of people who bring in the lowest revenue, but also the highest revenue. The same patterns were true for engineers’ productivity and medical students’ grades. Givers are overrepresented at the bottom and at the top of every success metric that I can track.
Which raises the question: How do we create a world where more of these givers get to excel? I want to talk about how to do that, not just in businesses, but also in nonprofits, schools, even governments.
The first thing that’s really critical 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. And I learned a great lesson about this from Fortune’s best networker, Adam Rifkin. He’s a very successful serial entrepreneur who spends a huge amount of his time helping other people. And his secret weapon is the five-minute favor.
Adam said, “You don’t have to be Mother Teresa or Gandhi to be a giver. You just have to find small ways to add large value to other people’s lives.” That could be as simple as making an introduction between two people who could benefit from knowing each other. It could be sharing your knowledge or giving a little bit of feedback. Or it might be even something as basic as saying, “You know, I’m going to try and figure out if I can recognize somebody whose work has gone unnoticed.”
Those five-minute favors are really critical to helping givers set boundaries and protect themselves.
The second thing that matters if you want to build a culture where givers succeed, is you actually need a culture where help-seeking is the norm; where people ask a lot. This may hit a little too close to home for some of you. What you see with successful givers is they recognize that it’s okay to be a receiver, too.
If you run an organization, we can actually make this easier. We can make it easier for people to ask for help. A couple colleagues and I studied hospitals. We found that on certain floors, nurses did a lot of help-seeking, and on other floors, they did very little of it. The factor that stood out on the floors where help-seeking was common, where it was the norm, was there was just one nurse whose sole job it was to help other nurses on the unit.
When that role was available, nurses said, “It’s not embarrassing, it’s not vulnerable to ask for help – it’s actually encouraged.” 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, they don’t want to burden others. Yet if nobody ever asks for help, you have a lot of frustrated givers in your organization who would love to step up and contribute, if they only knew who could benefit and how.
But I think 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. I figured, you want a culture of productive generosity, you should hire a bunch of givers. But I was surprised to discover actually that that was not right – that the negative impact of a taker on a culture is usually double to triple the positive impact of a giver.
One bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg just does not make a dozen. Let even one taker into a team, and 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.
So how do you catch a taker before it’s too late? We’re actually pretty bad at figuring out who’s a taker, especially on first impressions.
There’s a personality trait that throws us off. It’s called agreeableness, one the major dimensions of personality across cultures.
Agreeable people are warm and friendly, they’re nice, they’re polite. Now for those of you who are highly agreeable, you get this right away. How could I ever say I’m any one thing when I’m constantly adapting to try to please other people?
Disagreeable people do less of it. They’re more critical, skeptical, challenging, and far more likely than their peers to go to law school. That’s not a joke, that’s actually an empirical fact.
So I always assumed that agreeable people were givers and disagreeable people were takers. But then I gathered the data, and I 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?
The agreeable givers are easy to spot: they say yes to everything. The disagreeable takers are also recognized quickly, although you might call them by a slightly different name.
We forget about the other two combinations. There are disagreeable givers in our organizations. There are people who are gruff and tough on the surface but underneath have others’ best interests at heart. Disagreeable givers 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. This is the person who is nice to your face, and then will stab you right in the back. My 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.
And let’s face it, you all know you can learn a lot about character by watching how someone treats their restaurant server or their Uber driver.
So 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 okay for them to be ambitious in pursuing their own goals as well as trying to help other people, we can actually change the way that people define success.
Instead of saying it’s all about winning a competition, people will realize success is really more about contribution. I believe that the most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed. And if we can spread that belief, we can actually turn paranoia upside down.
There’s a name for that. It’s called “pronoia.” Pronoia is the delusional belief that other people are plotting your well-being. That they’re going around behind your back and saying exceptionally glowing things about you. The great thing about a culture of givers is that’s not a delusion – it’s reality.
I want to live in a world where givers succeed, and I hope you will help me create that world.