Give and Take

So, it’s been a while but I wanted to get back to blogging. I became a dad for the first time not long after I started my blog and it’s been an amazing few months. My blogging might have lapsed but I have been keeping up with my reading, and my most recent read is what drew me back to writing here.

‘Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success’ is a brilliant new book by Adam Grant and was recommended by Susan Cain before it was published, in a Goodreads interview.

“I just read an amazing book that’s coming out by Adam Grant. It’s called Give and Take. It’s about the power of generosity. Adam Grant is this amazing man considered one of the best social scientists of his generation. He’s done amazing groundbreaking research about people who are naturally generous and wanting to help other people actually come out ahead, contrary to what we think.”

One thing that’s often said about me is that I’m generous, so I was fascinated to hear about a new study of generosity and what life is like for people who tend to be selfless. Especially one that was recommended so strongly by someone I admire. Also, since I work for a charity, I wondered whether the book might give new insights into why some people give money or time to support certain causes. I pre-ordered it and couldn’t wait to read it when it arrived in May.

Reciprocity styles
In the book, Adam Grant uses a lot of research from the past few decades and defines three broad groups of people, based on their reciprocity style (or the balance of how much they give and take): givers, takers and matchers.

Takers “like to get more than they give”, putting their own interests first, while givers generally do the opposite. Matchers are prepared to give but value fairness, expect equal generosity and tend to engineer their giving so that they will get something equivalent in return. Grant says that in professional life, most people tend to be matchers.

“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.”

The book also makes it clear that “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 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.” This can include mentoring and sharing credit.

Interestingly, although people will tend to be givers in their personal lives and relationships, at work most people are usually matchers.

As with introversion and extroversion, it’s plain that no-one is usually 100% one type – giver, taker or matcher – but that people will tend towards one style while being able to adopt other styles in different situations or relationships.

How do givers fare at work?
I wasn’t too surprised when Grant found that, professionally, givers “are most likely to land at the bottom of the success ladder”:

“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 surprisingly, he also found that givers also tend to be the most successful, with takers and matchers somewhere in between.

The givers who tend to have a harder time are people who are purely selfless – whereas successful givers are what Grant terms ‘otherish’ – a mixture of succeeding for yourself but “in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around [you]”.

“If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.”

Find out your own reciprocity style
You can take a test on Adam Grant’s website to assess your giving preferences, and find out whether you are a giver, taker or matcher. I took this test just as I started to read the book and felt proud when my results told me I am 100% a giver. But I do wonder whether I am ‘otherish’ enough in my giving – I think perhaps I am, since I was actually expecting to rate as a matcher anyway, and it seems to me that being ‘otherish’ is closer to being a matcher than a purely selfless giver.

Give and take in fundraising
The book mentions a study about fundraisers, where underperforming givers were able to achieve the same success as their taker colleagues simply by reading case studies about how their job helped other people – the beneficiaries of their work. Givers need feedback about the impact their giving has, which also helps them to avoid the possible burnout their selflessness can bring.

And studies among donors were also enlightening: “As expected, higher income led to higher giving … But something much more interesting happened. For every $1 in extra charitable giving, income was $3.75 higher. Giving actually seemed to make people richer … Research shows that giving can boost happiness and meaning, motivating people to work harder and earn more money.”

Such happiness at work has also been shown to lead to better job performance and rewards. (I came across a questionnaire on happiness at work that you can take at

When they were asked to give money to charity, psychologist Robert Cialdini found that people donate more “when the phrase ‘even a penny will help’ is added to a request. Interestingly, this phrase increases the number of people who give without necessarily decreasing the amount that they give. Legitimising small contributions draws in takers, making it difficult and embarrassing for them to say no, without dramatically reducing the amount donated by givers.”

I really recommend that you read this book if you’re interested in how networks work and how they can succeed or fail – there’s some fascinating information about ‘weak’ and (especially) ‘dormant’ ties in networks and how they can often “provide more efficient access to new information”, perspectives, ideas or opportunities (and you’ll never look at annual reports and your friends’ Facebook activity in quite the same way again!). I especially enjoyed the section about Adam Rifkin and his aim “to change our fundamental ideas about how we build our networks and who should benefit from them. He believes that we should see networks as a vehicle for creating value for everyone, not just claiming it for ourselves.” A recurring theme is giving as a way of increasing the collective pie of success so that everyone is able to have a share.

The brilliant Beth Kanter has recently blogged about ‘Give and Take’, especially in relation to networks, reciprocity circles and volunteering, and about meeting Adam Grant.

Geniuses, genius makers, and ‘Little Bets’
There’s also some interesting stuff in the book about ‘geniuses’ vs ‘genius makers’, interesting not least because it uses architects as case studies (I studied architecture and it’s still one of my big interests). In a similar way to how ‘Little Bets’ by Peter Sims (worth a blog post in its own right) gave me insight into how the architect Frank Gehry works, and made me take a fresh look at his work, ‘Give and Take’ highlights how the architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius but gave little or no credit to the genius makers he employed who were crucial to his success.

When addressing credit, and whether people tend to credit or blame themselves or others when things go well or go badly, the book shows that the ideal is to create a working environment of “psychological safety – the belief that you can take a risk without being penalised or punished”. This resonates with the thesis of ‘Little Bets’, as does the section on how givers (who ultimately want the best result for everyone) feel freer to “let go of their big bets” rather than investing more time, energy or money in a lost cause, where givers might keep pursuing hopeless investments because of ‘ego threat’: “if I don’t keep investing, I’ll look and feel like a fool”.

There’s a lovely quotation from a writer on ‘The Simpsons’, who says that “there’s something magical about getting the reputation as someone who cares about others more than yourself. It redounds to your benefit in countless ways”.

(Also, being a language geek, I love learning a new word such as ‘redound’!)

The perks of introversion
Lots of the book made me think of ‘Quiet’ and the benefits of introversion too, especially quotes about otherish givers, such as “[he] ‘was never in the spotlight, and never taking proper credit for the team he assembled” and “’nobody noticed him…until they really started looking hard’” and “He speaks so softly that you might find yourself leaning forward just to hear him”.

“Whereas takers often strive to be the smartest people in the room, givers are more receptive to expertise from others, even if it challenges their own beliefs.”

And there’s also a whole section on ‘The Power of Powerless Communication’, which acknowledges (among other things) the influence of ‘Quiet’ and Susan Cain’s work. It was reassuring to read that the best approach is to make yourself vulnerable, asking lots of questions and seeking advice (genuinely), with a more tentative tone, as that is my natural tendency anyway. But it’s key to remember that “there’s a twist: expressing vulnerability is only effective if the audience receives other signals establishing the speaker’s competence”. There’s also information on assertiveness and how you can better advocate for yourself if you are, or you feel you are, doing it on behalf of others; as well as how you might need to adapt your reciprocity style depending on who you are dealing with, for example becoming more of a matcher if you have to deal with a relentless taker.

Stepping outside our own frames of reference
The section on the ‘perspective gap’ covers how we need to “step outside [our] own frames of reference” when we are trying to help people, so that we are acting, as far as possible, from the perspective of the people we’re helping rather than our own, and thinking how the recipient will feel.

The book gives evidence showing that “leaders’ beliefs can catalyse self-fulfilling prophecies in many settings” – this part of the book really shocked me, although it should have been really obvious, I suppose – as it showed that right from school and through our professional lives, having teachers, mentors and managers who are genuinely kind, interested, motivating and supportive can clearly help students, peers and all the people around them to realise their potential and achieve great things, no matter where you start from – you don’t always have to already have a clear talent in order to succeed.

Fascinating footnotes
I highly recommend this book (I have already bought it as a gift for others, and will gladly lend you my copy!), there’s so much fascinating information – including a debate on whether giving is purely altruistic or motivated by some self-interest – and you should definitely read the extensive footnotes, which provide further illumination. I was less convinced by the evidence for the importance of similarity – that people tend to gravitate towards people, places or careers that resemble themselves or their names – but the idea of being attracted to (or feeling solidarity with?) someone who shares an “uncommon commonality” rings more true, as does “optimal distinctiveness” as a way of feeling distinctive but also a sense of belonging… I can see that’s how a lot of successful communities, interest groups and networks thrive.

Group giving and generosity
And there’s some fascinating research about how group generosity can positively influence even die-hard takers – the idea of an organised “Reciprocity Ring”, as well as being influenced by seeing others doing simple, attainable, replicable acts of kindness and generosity – with Freecycle as a great example: “By making giving visible, Freecycle made it easier for people to see the norm.”

Empty promises?
Another series of studies, “people who went public with their intentions to engage in an identity-relevant behaviour were significantly less likely to engage in the behaviour than people who kept their intentions private”. This is fascinating, not least because it contradicts what I assumed about, for example making your personal fitness goals public in order to get peer support (and pressure) to encourage you to achieve them. However, it turns out, in experiments such as one where Harvard students were encouraged to sign a pledge to serve society, which would be framed and hung in the public hallways, when “people made their identity plans known to others, they were able to claim the identity without actually following through on the behaviour. By signing the kindness pledge, Harvard students would be able to establish an image as givers without needing to act like givers.”

Practical actions
At the end of the book the author provides lots of next actions to take, supported by details of resources and tools.

One key takeaway for me, as a giver, was to be as generous at work as you are in your personal life:

“If we reserve giver values for our personal lives, what will be missing in our professional lives?”