Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

To Give or Take? The Surprising Science Behind Success

Adam Grant - Give and Take

​​“The principle of give and take; that is diplomacy—give one and take ten” — Mark Twain

Was Twain right? It certainly seems so. The world is full of people who operate with that fuel. For them it’s all about taking. Lest you lose your faith in humanity, the world is also full of people who believe that on some level, karma or otherwise, it pays to be nice. The question arises as to which is the better strategy. Is it better to take or to give?

So much of life depends on how we interact with others. We all want to be friends with givers. We have a way of eliminating takers from our social circles and generally filtering them out of our life. Yet when it comes to the workplace, things change. We can’t rid ourselves of the takers and they often seem to get ahead at the expense of the givers. Even givers often behave differently in the workplace, argues Adam Grant in Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

According to conventional wisdom, highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. If we want to succeed, we need a combination of hard work, talent, and luck. [Yet there is] a fourth ingredient, one that’s critical but often neglected: success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions 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?

And part of how we approach our interactions with others has to do with our preference for reciprocity — our desired mix of taking and giving.

Grant introduces us to two kinds of people that fall at opposite ends of the reciprocity spectrum: givers and takers.

Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Garden-variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective. “If I don’t look out for myself first,” takers think, “no one will.”

[…]

In the workplace, givers are a relatively rare breed. 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. These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people. If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you’re a giver, you might use a different cost-benefit analysis: you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs. Alternatively, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return. If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.

… being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice. It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others. Outside the workplace, this type of behavior is quite common. According to research led by Yale psychologist Margaret Clark, most people act like givers in close relationships. In marriages and friendships, we contribute whenever we can without keeping score.

In the workplace things change. Things get more complicated. Subconsciously employing game theory, we become matchers.

Professionally, few of us act purely like givers or takers, adopting a third style instead. We become matchers, striving 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. If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.

Despite that, we develop a “primary reciprocity style” at work, which “captures how (we) approach most of the people most of the time. And that style can play as much a role in our success as hard work, talent, and luck.”

If you were to guess who was to end up at the bottom of the success ladder, what would you say? Givers? Takers? Matchers?

Research demonstrates that givers sink to the bottom of the success ladder. Across a wide range of important occupations, givers are at a disadvantage: they make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.

But if givers are at the bottom, who is at the top? It’s the givers.

This pattern holds up across the board. The Belgian medical students with the lowest grades have unusually high giver scores, but so do the students with the highest grades. Over the course of medical school, being a giver accounts for 11 percent higher grades. Even in sales, I found that the least productive salespeople had 25 percent higher giver scores than average performers—but so did the most productive salespeople. The top performers were givers, and they averaged 50 percent more annual revenue than the takers and matchers. 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 chumps.

A lot of life strategies that work in the hundred-yard dash fail in the marathon. Grant convincingly argues that we underestimate the success of givers. We stereotype them as “chumps and doormats,” yet they also turn out to be some of the most successful people. So what separates the champs from the chumps?

The answer is less about raw talent or aptitude, and more about the strategies givers use and the choices they make. … We all have goals for our own individual achievements, and it turns out that successful givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers. They simply have a different way of pursuing their goals.

Givers are the win-win people. When takers win, someone loses. As the venture capitalist Randy Komisar remarks, “It’s easier to win if everybody wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there, it’s easier to succeed.” Or as Charlie Munger says, “The best way to get success is to deserve success.”

Givers are non-linear.

[g]ivers, takers, and matchers all can—and do—achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when [givers] win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. You’ll see that the difference lies in how giver success creates value, instead of just claiming it.

And, Grant argues that we live in a world where giving matters more than ever.

The fact that the long run is getting shorter isn’t the only force that makes giving more professionally productive today. We live in an era when massive changes in the structure of work—and the technology that shapes it have further amplified the advantages of being a giver.

Givers thrive in teams, takers as the lone wolf. As the structure of success changes—as we move out of school and into the workplace—a new sense of teamwork emerges that favors the givers. Takers focus on wealth, power, pleasure, and winning. Values that are constantly getting attention from the media. Givers are interested in helping, being dependable, social justice, and compassion (notably things that get much less attention in today’s sensationalist page-view world.)

In the first part of Give and Take, Grant shows us what makes giving “both powerful and dangerous.” The second part shows us the benefits and costs of giving and how they can be managed. Before you put the book down, you’ll be rethinking your assumptions about success.