Givers, Takers and Creating the Mindset for Change

In Building the Agile Business we describe the importance of supporting the right organisational and individual mindset that can enable you to move fast. This is important since internal politics can act as a powerful brake on agility. The kind of culture that is not infused with the attributes that enable trust but instead is characterised by self-interest counter-acts the ability to empower staff and support the kind of autonomy that can enable you to move fast. One of my favourite analogies for this comes from Guy Kawasaki:

“There are two kinds of people and organizations in the world: eaters and bakers. Eaters want a bigger slice of an existing pie; bakers want to make a bigger pie. Eaters think that if they win, you lose, and if you win, they lose. Bakers think that everyone can win with a bigger pie.”

In Give and Take (which I’ve been re-reading recently) organisational psychologist Adam Grant demonstrates (based on extensive research) that there are three basic kinds of people in the workplace, ‘Givers’, ‘Takers’ and ‘Matchers’, and that the difference between these approaches can be fundamental to our success (or lack of success). Conventional wisdom, he says, has us believe that success is down to a combination of motivation, ability and opportunity, but there is a fourth (critical but often neglected) ingredient – how we choose to interact with other people:

‘Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?’

According to Grant’s research, ‘Takers’ are cautious, self-protective, see the world as a competitive place and so like to get more than they give. These are pie-eaters. ‘Givers’, on the other hand, are pie-bakers – generous, sharing, helping others without being as concerned about reward or personal cost:

‘They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.’

In the workplace many of us are not pure ‘Givers’ and ‘Takers’, but instead what Grant calls ‘Matchers’, who operate on a principle of fairness, and strive to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting. We may adopt different styles according to different situations but typically each of us will develop a dominate style for social interaction and behaviour.

When Grant looked at the degree of success that people with the different styles had achieved he found something interesting. ‘Givers’ tended to be at the bottom of the pile, but they were also right at the top of the ladder as the most successful people in the study. ‘Takers’ and ‘Matchers’ fell in the middle:

‘Givers dominate the bottom and the top of the success ladder. Across occupations, if you examine the link between reciprocity styles and success, the givers are more likely to become champs — not only chumps.’

So if ‘Givers’ were both the worst and the best performers, what made the difference? It turned out that successful ‘Givers’ were absolutely as ambitious as ‘Takers’ or ‘Matchers’, but they made smart choices in their interactions with others. Put simply, the ‘Givers’ who excel are those that are willing to ask for help when they need it.

Moreover, when ‘Givers’ do succeed, it has a cascading effect. When ‘Takers’ win, there may well be someone else who loses, but when ‘Givers’ win there is far more likely to be widespread support for them, creating a kind of ripple effect that enhances the success of people around them. People are envious of successful ‘Takers’. People root for successful ‘Givers’. Giver success, says Grant, creates value instead of just claiming it.

Organisational culture has a critical influence over the dominant patterns of behaviour within a business. Cultures that recognise and support ‘Givers’ create their own cascades of success that builds the foundation for exceptional performance. This is precisely why, in transforming business to become more agile, we ignore organisational culture and behavioural and communication norms at our peril.

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Also published on Medium.