giveandtake-coverThis is the final part of the Big Ideas series – where I’ve been reviewing books that relate loosely to collaboration. Through my reviews, I’ve seen similarities in how top management thinkers are viewing the business world and how we work together. They collectively show that there’s a new, less-individualistic, approach emerging.

In this post, I’m reviewing “Give and Take: a revolutionary approach to success” by Adam Grant.

The big idea

Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist and professor, has spent more than 10 years studying how our interactions with others have an impact on success. He has identified three types of people in the work environment:

  • takers – those that like to “get more than they give” (competitive, self-protective and cautious)
  • givers – those that “prefer to give more than they get” (other-focused, generous)
  • matchers – those that strive to “preserve an equal balance of giving and getting” (operate on fairness)

Although many people are givers in their personal relationships, it’s rare that they act the same way in the workplace – they’re often worried that they might be seen as “weak or naïve”. Grant shows through his studies that, despite the obvious downsides, there are powerful benefits to being a giver.

Grant has identified that givers are, surprisingly, found at both the bottom and the top of the success ladder, with the matchers and takers in between. Grant wanted to understand why some givers stayed at the bottom, whilst others managed to climb their way past their counterparts to come out on top. He presents stories and various research studies to identify what differentiates them.

Main principles

Grant presents the distinct ways that givers approach key aspects of business life. For example:

Networks: Whereas takers develop their networks to build value for themselves, givers view their networks as a way to create value for everyone – and not just in a traditional reciprocal style. When givers receive help from someone, their approach is to respond by ‘paying it forward’ to someone else who needs it.

Spotting talent: Grant describes how motivation and grit are more important in predicting an individual’s future success than early displays of natural talent. As a result, givers are more likely to invest the time and energy needed to support those that develop gradually but persistently over time, and are therefore better at spotting talent.

Communication: Takers tend to try to influence others by gaining dominance – using forceful language, asserting authority and exuding confidence. As we saw in “To Sell is Human“, the effectiveness of this type of communication to persuade and motivate others, is losing ground. Grant describes how givers use powerless communication to sell – asking questions and for advice, and showing vulnerability (as long as they are seen as competent in the first place) with high levels of success.

To avoid burnout and being taken advantage of, Grant offers the following advice to givers:

Stay motivated: successful givers are just as ambitious as matchers and takers, but it manifests differently. They are “otherish”, which means that as well as being interested in how others can benefit, they also have ambitious personal goals. They also need to see the impact of their positive actions to keep going.

Understand others’ motives: Disagreeable takers and agreeable givers are easy to spot, but it’s less easy to identify agreeable takers (fakers) and disagreeable givers. The secret is to look at underlying motives, rather than veneers. Do this, not by considering how people feel, but how they think.

And…for collaboration?

Grant dedicates the third chapter of  “Give and Take” to teams and working together – The Ripple Effect: Collaboration and the Dynamics of Giving and Taking Credit. He sees it as central to our working culture. In this chapter, and throughout the book, we get an insight into how givers operate in teams and how this leads to successful collaboration.

  • Givers are happy to make it clear that they need to work with others to get things done. US research demonstrated that people tend to celebrate the ‘lone genius’ and see interdependence as a weakness. But a study of security analysts showed that when star performers were hand-picked and moved to another firm, their performance dropped – unless they were moved with their team.
  • Givers create an environment for giving. People are more likely to give when they already see it happening around them. This is the default behaviour for givers, who often volunteer for unpopular tasks, are less worried about being specifically credited for their work, and are more supportive of others. They set the scene for their team members to follow.
  • Givers put the team’s interests ahead of their individual interests.  Grant referred to this as “expedition behaviour”, where givers do the work that benefits the whole team, rather than themselves individually. This earns them respect, and makes the whole team better off, who perform more effectively as a result.

But there are challenges to this:

  • The Responsibility Bias – where collaborations break down because people feel that they’ve contributed more than their team members. This is mainly because they can see all of their own efforts and only a snippet of their partners’. To overcome this, givers focus their attention on what their collaborators have contributed, rather than their own.
  • The Leadership Paradox – the best leaders of creative teams are those that are more inclusive, open and invite input from members. Despite this approach being more effective than leaders who use more powerful, dominating speech (which prevents communication and ideas sharing), people often assume that the more inclusive leaders are not strong enough.

Key Takeaways

“Give and Take” offers solutions to overcoming the downsides of a more generous approach that seems natural to us in our personal lives, but almost dangerous in the professional world.  We can’t avoid working with others, and as Grant demonstrates, if we can work through the obvious risks of being a ‘giver’, it leads to a more beneficial environment to getting things done and achieving success.

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