Brain Pickings

Givers, Takers, and Matchers: The Surprising Science of Success

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Counterintuitive insight on what makes people thrive from the wunderkind of organizational psychology.

“The principle of give and take; that is diplomacy— give one and take ten,” Mark Twain famously smirked. But for every such cynicism, there’s a heartening meditation on the art of asking and the beautiful osmosis of altruism. “The world is just,” Amelia Barr admonished in her rules for success, “it may, it does, patronize quacks; but it never puts them on a level with true men.” After all, it pays to be nice because, as Austin Kleon put it, “the world is a small town,” right?

Well, maybe — maybe not. Just as the world may be, how givers and takers fare in matters of success proves to be more complicated. So argues organizational psychology wunderkind Adam Grant (remember him?), the youngest-tenured and highest-rated Wharton professor at my alma mater, in Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (public library).

Grant’s extensive research has shed light on a crucial element of success, debunking some enduring tenets of cultural mythology:

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. [But 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?

At the heart of his insight is a dichotomy of behavioral styles people adopt in pursuing success:

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.”

Grant contrasts takers with givers:

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.

Outside the workplace, Grant argues by citing Yale psychologist Margaret Clark’s research, most of us are givers in close relationships like marriages and friendships, contributing without preoccupation with keeping score. In the workplace, however, few of us are purely givers or takers — rather, what dominates is a third style:

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.

True to psychologists’ repeated insistence that personality is fluid rather than fixed, Grant notes:

Giving, taking, and matching are three fundamental styles of social interaction, but the lines between them aren’t hard and fast. You might find that you shift from one reciprocity style to another as you travel across different work roles and relationships. It wouldn’t be surprising if you act like a taker when negotiating your salary, a giver when mentoring someone with less experience than you, and a matcher when sharing expertise with a colleague. But evidence shows that at work, the vast majority of people develop a primary reciprocity style, which captures how they approach most of the people most of the time. And this primary style can play as much of a role in our success as hard work, talent, and luck.

So who, then, is at the bottom of the success ladder? The answer seems at first unfortunate:

Professionally, all three reciprocity styles have their own benefits and drawbacks. But there’s one style that proves more costly than the other two. … 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.

In the world of engineering, the least productive and effective engineers are givers. In one study, when more than 160 professional engineers in California rated one another on help given and received, the least successful engineers were those who gave more than they received. These givers had the worst objective scores in their firm for the number of tasks, technical reports, and drawings completed— not to mention errors made, deadlines missed, and money wasted. Going out of their way to help others prevented them from getting their own work done.

[…]

Across occupations, it appears that givers are just too caring, too trusting, and too willing to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others. There’s even evidence that compared with takers, on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant.

But just as you begin to think that perhaps it’s our conception of work that needs to change in order to right this social wrong, something curious emerges: If givers are the bottom, then who’s on top, takers or matchers? Neither, it turns out. Grant’s data reveal that it’s the givers who occupy the upper echelons as well.

The worst performers and the best performers are givers; takers and matchers are more likely to land 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.

Central to Grant’s theory, no doubt to William James’s assent, is the notion of choice:

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.

Most powerful of all, however, is the exponential nature of givers’ success:

Givers, 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.

In the rest of Give and Take, Grant sets out to demonstrate, through studies and stories across law, engineering, education, entrepreneurship, corporate management, and more, that we tend to underestimate the success of givers, then explores what it is that makes their success so unique and powerful. Complement it with Susan Dominus’s fantastic profile of Grant in The New York Times Magazine.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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