Adam Grant: Givers and takers - who are the best performers in the workplace?

Midweek View: Successful givers do five-minute favours, looking for ways to offer high benefits to others at a low personal cost

"There are two kinds of people in the world," said the humorist Robert Benchley: "Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't." After a decade of research in settings ranging from Google to government and military organisations, I've found that there are not two, but three kinds of people in the world. I call them takers, givers and matchers.

Takers are the people we love to hate, who try to get as much as possible from us without giving anything back. They specialise in critical skills such as shirking and free riding, credit hogging, and self-promoting to make sure they're alone at the top. In contrast, givers enjoy helping others with no strings attached. They often go out of their way to share knowledge, solve problems and make introductions, without seeking anything in return.

You might think like a taker when negotiating your salary, and a giver when mentoring a new recruit, and it's rare for anyone to be purely one or the other. Most of the time, the majority of us are matchers – striving to stay at equilibrium between giving and taking. When someone does us a favour, we expect an equal one back. By matching others evenly, we escape the relationship and reputational damage that torments the takers, while simultaneously protecting ourselves against the exploitation and exhaustion that plague the givers. The matching approach seems like the safest way to live our professional lives, but is it the most effective way to operate?

To answer this question, I analysed studies of success in three very different arenas: engineering, medicine and sales. In each context, researchers gathered data on whether employees tended to operate like takers, givers or matchers, and then collected objective data on their success – productivity and error rates in engineering, grades in medical school, and revenue in sales.

Across all three settings, the givers were the worst performers. The engineers with the lowest productivity and the most errors were those whose colleagues rated them as doing many more favours than they received in return. Similarly, the medical students with the poorest grades, and the sales people with the lowest annual revenue, were those who agreed most strongly with statements like "I love to help others". By putting other people first, the givers ran out of time and energy to complete their own work effectively.

So who were the best performers? A close look at the data revealed an unexpected answer: not the takers, not the matchers, but the givers again. The engineers with the highest productivity and the fewest mistakes were those who did more favours for colleagues than they received. Engineers who took at least as much as they gave were more likely to have average results; the givers went to the extremes. The same pattern emerged in medicine and sales: the highest achievers were those most driven to help others.

What determines whether givers sink to the bottom or rise to the top? I find that failed givers are too altruistic: they sacrifice themselves to the point of burning out and allowing takers to use them. Successful givers put other people first most of the time, but they focus on helping in ways that are not at odds with their own interests. For example, it turns out that successful givers specialise in five-minute favours, looking for ways of offering high benefit to others at a low personal cost. They also ask the people they mentor to "pay it forward", expanding their giving to a broader audience, and are more cautious when dealing with takers.

Equipped with these self-preservation strategies, givers can climb higher than takers or matchers. Their generosity tends to forge deeper relationships, while opening doors to new networks as their reputations spread. They become trusted collaborators, winning the loyalty of their colleagues, and the leaders whose staff rise to the occasion. After all, most people are matchers, so one good turn earns another.

Even if givers don't exceed the accomplishments of takers and matchers, their success takes on a different quality. Instead of cutting other people down on the way to the top, they pursue their personal goals in ways that lift other people up, earning friends, not enemies. So when givers do ascend, it isn't lonely at the top.

Adam Grant, management professor at Wharton, is the author of 'Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success'. To assess your style, see giveandtake.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

Asset Finance Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - ASSET FINANCE - An outstanding...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Techincal Accountant-Insurance-Bank-£550/day

£475 - £550 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Technical Accountant-Insuran...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment