Give and Take, by Adam Grant

Amazon link
Book website
Adam Grant’s TED talk on the subject

Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, once said that “Nice guys finish last”. Adam Grant did a study to see how successful people were who habitually sacrificed themselves for others…and confirmed that a disproportionate number of them were the least successful. However, he also discovered that the people who were most successful were also givers! This book is his explanation of how helping others can lead to great success, and of some of the pitfalls to avoid as a giver.

So what is a giver? Grant asked people to rate themselves on dimensions like “I love to help others” and “I anticipate the needs of others.” They prefer to give more than they get, helping “whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs”. He contrasts this with two other styles of social interaction, takers and matchers. Takers “like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs.” Whereas matchers “[strive] to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting. Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity.” Grant emphasizes that we do not operate solely in one style – we might be takers in salary negotiations, matchers in work-related matters, and givers when it comes to family – but people tend to have a primary style.

From my perspective, what style you use boils down to whether you think the world is a zero-sum finite game (you have to lose for me to win), or a non-zero-sum infinite game (we can keep growing the pie forever). If you believe the latter, then giving makes sense – over the long run, giving more to others enables them to do more, and the social capital you build will increase in value. Grant does emphasize that giving doesn’t work if you do it for your own benefit, because people will see through that.

Grant’s chapter on “Finding the Diamond in the Rough” suggests that both takers and matchers wait to see evidence of talent or success before helping others; takers don’t see any benefit in helping a “loser”, and matchers want to know that any help they give can be reciprocated. Givers, on the other hand, see everybody as having possibilities and talent, and consider it their job to nurture it in others. They take a generous attitude, and create self-fulfilling prophecies – by seeing each person as a potential talent, they disproportionately nurture people to be successful. He shares stories of this in fields as varied as accounting, basketball and the military. But, again, it comes down to what time frame is being considered – in the short-term, the quick-hit takers will be more successful, but over the long-term, planting more seeds creates more success and potential in the world.

Grant spends another chapter discussing “The Power of Powerless Communication”. He describes takers as using powerful communication, where communicating is all about power, dominance, assertion and confidence. It’s again a zero-sum game, where they have to “win” the room, and others have to “lose”. Givers tend to use powerless communication, and “talk in ways that signal vulnerability, revealing their weaknesses and making use of disclaimers, hedges, and hesitations.” By admitting they don’t know everything, they have more opportunity to learn of new possibilities, and find their way to solutions that would never have been uncovered by somebody who asserted that they knew what was going on. He cites studies that top sales people often use powerless communication, because it lets them find out what their customers actually want and need, which means the customers are then more enthusiastic and buy more than if they had been told what they wanted by a taker. The insightful question I liked from this chapter was: “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?” This question invites collaboration and teamwork in a way that “This is what I need from you” does not. However, this only works if you actually care what others think – if you try this as a technique to get what you want, people will not open up in the same way.

So how does one stay in giving mode without burning out and sacrificing all of oneself? This chapter was important to me, because I have sometimes felt like I’m being taken advantage of by others because they don’t see how much effort I’m making to help them succeed. Grant makes the distinction between self-sacrificing givers, and successful “otherish” givers: “they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.” By respecting themselves and their time, they are not doormats for others to take advantage of, but their primary goal is still helping others. What Grant describes is similar to Brene Brown’s framework of Boundaries, Integrity and Generosity, where you can be as generous as you’d like so long as others respect your boundaries.

Grant also describes giving as a generous tit-for-tat strategy; giving at all costs makes one a doormat, whereas accounting for one’s own interests makes it easier to stand firm for one’s boundaries. He cites studies and examples where givers were terrible negotiators on their own behalf, but when negotiating for others (either as an agent, or for their families), they became more successful at negotiating then takers, because they could use their insights into what others desired to create new win-win possibilities.

One of Grant’s final chapters describes how modeling giving behavior can change cultures. Most people tend to be matchers; they will reciprocate the behavior that is offered to them. So if a few givers seed the culture by giving, others will tend to match that giving tendency, and it becomes the norm for the community. There will still be takers who try to extract all they can from others, but social pressure from the community can often deter such behavior; if not, the community leaders will have to be “otherish” enough to kick such people out to preserve the community value for everybody else. I loved this idea of seeding a community with giving values, and how that can reverberate and continue creating additional value for everybody as an ongoing rebuke to the idea of zero-sum thinking.

I enjoyed reading the stories in this book of successful givers, and it obviously resonates with many of my own thoughts of being generous. If you think you can’t afford to be generous and that nice guys always finish last, I recommend this book as a way to see the possibilities inherent in giving, and to learn some techniques to avoid being a doormat.

P.S. For my own reference, here are the Actions for Impact that Adam Grant recommends in the appendix:

  1. Test your giver quotient
  2. Run a Reciprocity Ring – get together with a group of people to make requests and help each other fulfill those requests
  3. Help other people craft their jobs.
  4. Start a Love Machine – a way for your organization/community to appreciate others they work with.
  5. Embrace the Five-Minute Favor – if you can do a favor in five minutes, do it, whether it’s giving honest feedback, or making an introduction.
  6. Practice Powerless Communication, but Become an Advocate
  7. Join a Community of Givers, such as FreeCycle or ServiceSpace
  8. Launch a Personal Generosity Experiment
  9. Help Fund a Project via Kickstarter or Kiva
  10. Seek Help More Often – “If you want other people to be givers, one of the easiest steps is to ask.” Wayne and Cheryl Baker say: “Start the spark of reciprocity by making requests as well as helping others. Help generously and without thought of return; but also ask often for what you need.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.