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Do Winners Give—or Take—All?

Generosity in the workplace doesn’t cost as much as being selfish.

Matt (not his real name) is a classic taker. His office walls are a veritable ego-museum, laden with awards and photos depicting his many talents and cozy relationships with high-profile celebrities. Conversations and emails are peppered with personal pronouns, causing speculation about whether he earns a commission each time he uses one. In bad times, he asks for help, but in good times, he offers none.

According to Adam Grant, Wharton professor of organizational psychology and author of the book Give and Take, takers are the “bad apples” who can damage organizational culture and performance if they’re not screened out during the hiring process.

Grant has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to studying the choices people make at work—either creating value for others or seizing the value others create for themselves. In his book, he defines the three fundamental styles of social interaction as giving, taking, and matching. When I recently spoke with him, Grant estimated that about 60 percent of us are matchers, given that we strive “to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting.” The other 40 percent is equally split between givers and takers. Takers “like to get more than they give” because they “believe the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place.” As a result, they “self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts,” Grant says. Givers prefer to “give more than they get,” focusing more on “what people need from them” rather than “what people can offer them.” Givers are motivated out of a sense of social responsibility. They don’t expect others to reciprocate but rather “acknowledge what they have received by paying it forward.” Of course, he adds, the lines between the styles aren’t “hard and fast,” with most of us shifting “from one reciprocity style to another” as we “travel across different work roles and relationships.”

If you’re curious about your giver quotient, take Grant's online assessment. Most people “overestimate their own giving,” he says, because, although they are present for their own giving, they do not witness the giving of others. Cracking the cover of Adam’s book, I was convinced I was a giver. About halfway through it, I started grasping the unfortunate reality that I was probably more of a matcher and confirmed my tit-for-tat nature via the online test. Although my matcher score is only 7 percentage points higher than my giver score, I now understand why I am compelled to reciprocate and why I think my 82-percent-giver spouse is, at times, generous to a fault.

If you score as a taker, learn how to give before your bad reputation catches up with you. Grant suggests starting with what he calls the giving gateway drug, the five-minute favor, which involves “asking people what they need and looking for ways to help at a minimal personal cost.” Takers doing a steady stream of five-minute favors will “come to see themselves as givers” over time, jumpstarting a virtuous cycle of giving.

Companies that focus exclusively on quarterly financial results incentivize taker behavior.

Companies that focus exclusively on quarterly financial results incentivize taker behavior.  However, says Grant, “It is more and more uncool to be a taker company. The social pressure is rising and customers are rejecting brands and employees are refusing jobs from companies who give less than they take.”

Grant’s research has also shown the value of these different styles. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that good guys finish last, his work reveals quite the opposite. Over the long term, givers are more successful than takers because matchers “will go out of their way to reward givers who act generously toward others” and “sacrifice their own interests to punish takers who act selfishly toward others.”

If you’re a giver, be smart about it. Don’t become a low-performing doormat by falling into the “three major traps that plague many givers: being too trusting, too empathetic, and too timid.” Smart givers look beyond agreeable taker behavior to understand motives, discover win-win giving opportunities, and increase their assertiveness by keeping the interests of the important people in their lives (like their families) at the forefront of their minds. 

Givers, Grant says, should take heart that “plenty of people hold giver values, but suppress or disguise them under the mistaken assumption that their peers don’t share their values.” As a leader, your job is to model and incentivize giving behavior and “screen out the takers.” In taker-free organizations, givers will “give without paranoia” and “matchers will follow the norm and become givers.”

Considering his taker tendencies, Matt’s days on top were numbered. After a quick rise, he fell from grace when a high-profile initiative failed at the same time he was being investigated for ethical violations. At the end, he stood alone, feeling betrayed and blind to the years of his own betrayal of others. Not much of a winner after all.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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