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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own