Are You a Giver or a Taker in the Workplace?

Author and management professor Adam Grant insists that givers come out on top over takers — at least in the long term. And it’s ‘really useful’ to have them planning meetings.

“There are two types of people in the world…”

When our grandparents intoned those words, we may have rolled our eyes. But for 32-year-old author Adam Grant, there really are two types of people in the world. Actually, three: givers, takers, and an in-between group called matchers. And the category you inhabit, Grant argues, can have profound implications on your professional success.

Grant’s 2013 book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, struck a chord with millions of readers, including celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher. In the book, Grant dismantles the thinking that focusing on your own professional gain is a winning strategy — and instead shows that while natural “givers” may occasionally miss out on raises and accolades, they actually emerge at the top of their field over the long term.

Give and Take
was the culmination of 10 years of research, a significant slice of life for Grant, the youngest full professor (of management) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Since then, he’s given “hundreds” of speeches around the country — many of them at meetings and conferences. Recently we caught up with him for a phone interview to ask how he sees himself — and how the dynamics of givers and takers play out at meetings and conventions.

What inspired you to write this book?

There are so many different answers to that, but what really motivated me to write the book were my students, who would come in during office hours and ask for career advice. They would think they needed to be self-serving to get ahead. I thought that was backwards; there are plenty of people who are successful and give back, like Bill Gates.

The Bill Gates model suggests [that] instead of succeeding first and then giving back, a lot of people give first and then succeed along the way. I would share that with students and various executive groups that I was working with, and more often than not, they would doubt it. I decided that if I couldn’t convince them with spoken words, maybe a book that pulled together the evidence and powerful examples would be more persuasive.

Are you more of a giver than a taker? Or do you think people toggle back and forth, depending on the situation?

Everyone has moments of giving, taking, and matching. For me, your style is how you treat most of the people most of the time. You can think about it as your default, or your dominant orientation. I don’t feel like it is my place to judge what my style is. I can tell you that I have the motivation of a giver and I have strong values around helping others, and that is a big reason that I wrote the book — but whether I succeed in living by those values is really in the eye of the beholder. So if you wanted to find out my style, or anyone else’s, you would really have to ask the people who interact with me or that person.

Do you believe in karma?

As a social scientist, my job is to look at the best evidence on a topic like that. In a way, I guess you could say that give and take is in part an analysis of when and why karma happens. A lot of people see it in mystical terms, but from my perspective, karma doesn’t happen when you help a bunch of takers who are out to take advantage of you. What a lot people call “karma” is actually the result of matchers, the middle groups of people who try to balance give and take. So matchers believe in an eye for an eye, a just world, what comes around goes around. And when it doesn’t, they feel like it’s their mission to become what Gretchen Rubin [author of The Happiness Project] calls the “karma police.”

There’s really cool evidence that matchers will go around undermining takers because they think that it’s unfair for a selfish person to succeed. Oftentimes, that means they’ll warn you if you’re about to end up trusting or working with a taker that you might want to be more cautious. That means that frequently takers will rise quickly but also fall quickly, because when they burn a bridge with one person it’s not so easy to start fresh when their reputation follows them. Matchers are the ones who really make sure that their reputation does follow them.

On the flip side, matchers also hate to see givers act generously without getting rewarded for it. That’s not fair, either. Just like matchers are motivated to take down takers, they also spend a lot of energy trying to promote givers and make sure that helpful people benefit from their own generosity. I think if you put all of that together, it suggests that since most people are matchers, these karmic moments can come from them. There’s an organized pattern [to karma] as opposed to it being random in some way.

How do you see this dynamic of give and take play out in the temporary environments of events and meetings?

The most obvious way that it plays out is through networking. We’ve all been to meetings and conferences where you try to avoid the person who’s after some instrumental goal and is trying to get something from you. I think most of us gravitate toward people who approach networking from a giving stance rather than a taking perspective — trying to find out what your goals are, what is important to you, and figure out if there are ways they can be helpful to you. Unfortunately, that behavior is rarer than it should be.

How might a meeting planner use, draw on, and apply this knowledge of givers and takers in the context of designing meetings?

My first instinct is to say that great meetings tend to be run by givers who are focused not on “how I can maximize the value of this meeting to me,” but “how I can create a really great event for the people who are going to participate.” From a selection standpoint, it’s really useful to have givers at the helm. One of the things that we see that causes many givers to fail is that they’re unwilling to ask for help; they like to be on the giving end of every exchange, and they don’t want to be a burden to other people. It’s useful to help meeting planners recognize that, all right, number one, if they don’t ever ask for help then they’re at great risk for burnout and they end up becoming less helpful. Number two, the better they get at asking others for help, the more people they can turn into givers.

[Planners] need to recognize that there is a difference between taking and receiving. A lot of people in the giving position are reluctant to ask, because they don’t want to look like a taker. But taking is using somebody for personal gain, whereas receiving is saying, “Look, I appreciate your contribution and I will pay it back or forward if I can.” If we don’t have anyone who is willing to seek and receive help, then we actually have no giving.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.