Do Givers Get Ahead?

By Jill Suttie | May 1, 2013 | 0 comments

It's the givers, not the takers, who thrive the most in business, argues a new book.

The study of economics seems poised for a revolution. The more we learn about how humans have evolved to be attuned to one another and to cooperate in groups, the more we may need to question the role of competition as the primary driving force in economic theory. Perhaps cooperation and being generous to others—including one’s competitors—is the surest road to success; not competition.

Yeah, right. Try communicating that to a room full of business execs, and you’re bound to be laughed out of the room!

But Adam Grant, professor at the Wharton School of Business, makes just such a proposal. In his new book Give and Take, he argues that giving to others is indeed the strategy to win in business as well as in life. Although successful people often have talent, luck, and a willingness to work hard, writes Grant, there is a fourth element to success—how one interacts with others—that is equally, if not more important.

Social scientists who study how people interact in work settings have determined that there are three types of interaction styles: takers, matchers, and givers. Takers want their interactions to result in a net gain for themselves; matchers feel that they will give as long as they are compensated quid pro quo. But givers want others to benefit whether or not they do themselves, and will act generously toward others without expectation of reward.

According to Grant, it is the givers who reap the most significant rewards in business. Because they have superior networking, collaborating, evaluating, and influencing skills, they will come out on top—maybe not in the short term, but definitely in the long term.

For example, scientists have found that networking is important to business. The more people you know, the better chances you have of connecting with someone who can help you materially or will invest in your business. But, if you are a taker, the chances that someone in your network will want to help you significantly decrease. Givers, on the other hand, have better relationships with people in their network and are more likely to benefit when they call upon their connections.

“Givers have a track record of generously sharing their knowledge, teaching us their skills, and helping us find jobs without worrying about what’s in it for them, so we’re glad to help them when they get back in touch with us,” writes Grant.

Research has shown that when one member of a community becomes a giver, it influences others in the community to give, and can create a chain of giving that’s contagious. In studies involving economic games in which giving and reciprocity patterns can be measured quantitatively and studied, the presence of one consistent giver in a group makes all the other participants in that group give more to others, on average. Also, the giver tends to make out fairly well—walking away with 26 percent more money than participants in groups without a giver.

Givers tend to see the best in others and try to support effort. Takers, on the other hand, tend to look for inherent talent and promote it, hoping to bask in the reflected glory if this talent succeeds, while passing over those who have promise.  This tendency can lead takers to miss opportunities to keep or attract good people into their organizations, while givers would be more apt to find the hidden gems within their workforce.

In addition, givers are more willing to take in input from others and learn from their own mistakes, while takers may be unwilling to reconsider a bad decision they’ve made for fear that the decision will reflect badly on them. Correcting a mistake early rather than trying to gloss over it is a winning strategy that works well for givers, allowing their businesses to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances.

But can’t givers be taken advantage of by unscrupulous takers? Sure, writes Grant. But there are ways to prevent that kind of damage. Grant cautions givers to screen people for sincerity, so they can identify people who are takers and be more careful about giving. Spending time with people before giving to them will allow a giver to more thoroughly vet the recipients of their generosity before promising too much. And, luckily, Grant writes, givers are particularly good at reading people’s intentions…if given the time.

It’s refreshing to read a book about work that presents the better side human nature. The book’s take away message is that we all benefit when we take advantage of our cooperative natures, and that, contrary to popular belief, good guys finish first, not last. It’s nice to see that this is true in business as well as in life.

Read an excerpt from Give and Take, “10 Ways to Get Ahead Through Giving.”

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About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.


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