Give and Take

giveandtake-coverGivers or takers? Which group is significantly over-represented at the top of organizations?

Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the givers. And that holds true across all sorts of professions, as Adam Grant shows in his superb book Give and Take.

So why isn’t everyone a giver? Well, one clue may be that givers also dominate on the bottom rungs of organizational hierarchies.

Grant explores why it is that givers tend to succeed in the long run – or fall precipitously.  The book has practical wisdom about how to give without getting burnt out or being exploited by ambitious takers. It makes a totally convincing case for giving as default behaviour. Beyond the individual, it also explores how to nurture a giver culture in an organization.

It’s thorough – Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton – but it’s a story superbly told, drawing on a rich landscape of examples from Lincoln through LinkedIn and Def Jam Records to The Simpsons creative team.

The funny thing, as Grant notes, is that most of us want to be givers. He quotes a seventy country survey,for instance, in which giver values emerged as the number-one guiding principle in life to most people in most countries.

Outside of work we behave much more often and more naturally as givers. Grant quotes recent neuroscience evidence suggesting that giving activates the reward centres in the brain. There’s a wealth of evidence too that giving is associated with happiness, satisfaction and well-being.

But at work, givers tend to hide.  Giving is often associated with weakness. Grant quotes one executive who was convinced that it would undermine her authority if it became known that she was in fact a giver.

Why have we developed this compulsion to hide our inner giver when we go to work? The evidence suggests it may be partly because we systematically under-estimate the number of people who are willing to give. But mostly it’s because we frame work as a competitive environment.

“Workplaces and schools are often designed to be zero-sum environments , with forced rankings and required grading curves that pit group members against one another in win-lose contests. In these settings, it’s only natural to assume that peers will lean in the taker direction, so people hold back on giving…

“As a result, even when they do engage in giving behaviors, people worry that they’ll isolate themselves socially if they violate the norm, so they disguise their giving behind purely self-interested motives.”

The end result is that givers hide: “In my experience,” writes  Grant, ”plenty of people hold giver values but suppress or disguise them under the mistaken assumption that their peers don’t share these values”.

Grant notes that perhaps it’s especially an American thing. He quotes de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, after his visit to the United States in 1835, expressing his surprise that Americans help others freely but find it very hard to admit: ‘they enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest. They often do themselves less than justice’.

Brilliant book, I can’t recommend it enough.

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