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Why Being a ‘Giver’ Helps Your Career

By:  John Searles Jun 13, 2013
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Author Adam Grant
Michael Kamber
No matter how hard you work, there can still be that ouch moment when you watch a promotion or project go to a self-serving coworker who takes credit for other people’s hard work. In his new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania, talks about the different types of work personalities and explains why people who use their generosity wisely pull ahead of the pack.

Q. According to your book, there are three types of people: takers, givers and matchers. Who are they?

A: Takers love to get more from others than they give. They specialize in shirking work, credit hogging and occasional backstabbing. Givers actually enjoy contributing more to other people than they receive in return and often share knowledge and offer help without any strings attached. Most of us, however, are matchers, falling somewhere in the middle: We like to maintain a fair, even balance of giving and taking.

What makes givers so successful?

A: Givers tend to gain advantages in four domains: networking, collaboration, talent development and influence. In networking, by investing in meaningful connections, givers create deeper relationships than takers and matchers do. In collaboration, by sharing credit and volunteering for unpopular tasks, givers are able to signal their skills without threatening their colleagues, demonstrating that their chief concern is for advancing the group’s interests. When developing talent, givers strive to find the potential in others and enable them to reach that potential. And when seeking influence, givers ask more questions and maintain modesty, showing a sincere interest in others that earns trust and prestige. Ultimately, in interdependent work, givers succeed in ways that lift other people up, instead of cutting them down.

Can you really spot a taker just by looking at his or her Facebook page?

A: One kind of taker is a narcissist — someone with an inflated ego, who feels special and superior to others. Some researchers have shown that these narcissistic takers have more vain, self-glorifying Facebook photos. I like to point out that they’re not necessarily more attractive than the rest of us, but there’s a greater discrepancy between how they look, on average, and how hot they are in their profile pictures. Not surprisingly, these takers also tend to do more self-promotion in the “About Me” sections of their profiles, plastering biographical material with impressive accomplishments.

Adam Grant's book Give and Take

Does the number of siblings a person have affect his or her level of generosity?

A: Several studies suggest that the more siblings you have, the more giving you become — especially if you have younger siblings. In larger families, children grow up doing more sharing, and the more younger siblings there are, the more older children become involved in cleaning, cooking and other childcare activities. These experiences appear to serve as a form of responsibility training, activating or strengthening the giver instinct.

Can a person who is a natural taker become more of a giver?

A: We all have a mix of giver, taker and matcher moments; our style depends on how we treat most of the people most of the time and how others judge our motives and actions. With friends and family members, research shows that most people act like givers. I would be quite worried about a marriage in which a husband was unwilling to help his wife without expecting anything in return! Every interaction with another person involves a choice between giving, taking and matching, so takers can shift their styles by looking for ways to trade or add value. It usually starts with a question: What can I offer that might benefit others but costs me little or nothing? Sharing knowledge and making introductions are two common examples of low-cost acts of giving that appeal to a wide range of people — including takers.

You point out that generous people — “givers” — are often better negotiators. Why is that?

A: Because they care about others, they show a sincere interest in understanding what their counterparts value. At the same time, they’re careful not to give away the farm. As they hunt for ways to simultaneously achieve the dual goals of benefiting others and themselves, they end up discovering more creative and integrative solutions.

Do men and women give in different ways?

A: Research suggests that men and women are equally helpful but tend to help in different ways and situations. Women do more giving in close relationships, with friends and family members. Men appear to do more giving toward strangers and in public and high-risk settings.

You are known for your networking skills. When it’s job-hunting time, to whom should we reach out?

A: Contact your dormant ties — people with whom you’ve lost touch. Research shows that when we reach out for help, we benefit more from reconnecting with people from our past. That’s because, while many of our current contacts are strong ties, they usually know many of the same people and things that we do. With dormant ties, there’s a shared history that can help make us comfortable asking for help and provide a basis for them to care about helping us. At the same time, they’ve been meeting new people and learning new things over the past few years, so they can open doors to new leads and opportunities.

Why do many givers end up very successful while others burn out and fail?

A: There are three differences: availability, advocacy and empathy.

  • First is availability: Failed givers are often willing to help anyone at any time. Successful givers set boundaries on when, how and whom they help, protecting their time and energy more carefully and pointing their giving in directions that will have the greatest impact.
  • Second is advocacy: Failed givers tend to be uncomfortable advocating for their own interests and asking for help, preferring to always be on the giving end of a transaction. Successful givers look to help others, but they also keep their own interests in the rear-view mirror: They’re willing to fight for themselves when necessary.
  • Third is empathy: Many failed givers fall into the trap of focusing solely on the feelings of others in need and respond by giving at their own expense. Successful givers empathize, but they also engage in perspective-taking, considering others’ thoughts and interests. This opens the door to identify win-win solutions that meet others’ needs without sacrificing one’s own.

Giving, of course, isn’t just about the work place. You say volunteering two hours a week can help people feel happier and live longer. Tell us how you arrived at that.

A: A number of studies have tracked the happiness and health consequences of volunteering. In both the U.S. and Australia, I located studies showing that happiness and health improve when people start volunteering 100 hours a year (two hours a week). Interestingly, volunteering additional hours did not appear to boost well-being further. Two hours a week may be the sweet spot where giving is energizing rather than exhausting, adding joy and meaning without imposing stress.