Adam M. Grant Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Adam M. Grant

Adam M. Grant

An interview with Adam M. Grant

How do you become a "giver" while recognizing the "taker" in others? Does geography play a role in the incidence of givers? Adam Grant explores these questions that frame the radical role of giving for success in the workplace and outside of it.

So what is the difference between a giver, taker and matcher?
They're different preferences for reciprocity. Takers love to get more from others than they give. 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 are matchers, falling somewhere in the middle: we like to maintain a fair, even balance of giving and taking.

What's unique about the success of givers?
My favorite feature of giver success is that it lifts others up, rather than cutting others down. When givers achieve excellence, they do so in ways that enable others to succeed as well, sharing credit, connections, and expertise. For givers, it's also less lonely at the top: we reserve the greatest admiration and respect for successful people who are generous. A third intriguing pattern is that people support successful givers, rather than gunning for them. What should takers take away from the book? Should they just be downright ashamed of themselves?

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. For someone who's viewed as a taker, I think the book has three major lessons. First, there is a time and place for taking behavior. In purely win-lose, zero-sum interactions, a focus on claiming value from others typically leads to the best results. However, most of life isn't zero sum, which leads to the next two insights. One is that takers should beware of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Taking is often the result of believing that if we don't look out for ourselves, others will take advantage of us. But this belief often backfires, because the more we act like takers, the more we elicit competitive, cutthroat behavior from those around us. The other is that there may be a better road to success. Another force behind taking is ambition: people see rational self-interest as the most efficient path to power. But the evidence shows that in the long run, it's very difficult for takers to achieve sustainable success. If the goal is to maximize influence and accomplishments, it may be wiser to operate like a matcher or giver, striving to contribute at least as much to others as we receive in return.

Can people who behave like takers become more like matchers or givers?
Absolutely. As noted above, no one is a pure taker, giver, or matcher; we all have a mix of motives and styles. In close relationships, such as 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 two questions: (a) what can I offer that might benefit others, but cost me little or nothing? Sharing knowledge and making introductions are two common examples of low-cost acts of giving that appeal to takers.

Can we get good at recognizing takers in our midst so we don't get burned or taken advantage of by them?
This is a critical skill. The data show that takers are more likely to claim credit, talking about their successes with first-person pronouns (I and me, instead of us and we). They also tend to spend more time self-promoting, and display flattering photos of themselves. Another intriguing taker pattern is known as "kissing up, kicking down": takers are careful to manage impressions upward, but it's tough to keep up the façade in lateral and downward interactions. One of the best ways to identify a taker is to ask peers and subordinates, not bosses.

How does a giver avoid being a doormat?
It comes back to being otherish: givers need to balance helping others with promoting their own interests. One of the otherish ways to avoid the doormat effect is to engage in sincerity screening: look for cues about whether the people around you are givers, takers, or matchers. Instead of giving to everyone, when you encounter a taker, act more like a matcher: hold the person accountable for helping you (or others) before you offer your help. How has social media affected the givers and takers of the world? Social media has made it harder for takers to succeed, and easier for givers. When people enter our networks, we can track a great deal of information about their reputations through profiles, posts, and common connections. This means that when takers have burned a bridge, we're more likely to find out about it, and the generosity of givers is more visible as well.

What differentiates givers at the top (i.e. those who've achieved great success) from those at the bottom (those who have burned out)?
There are three differences that I find especially interesting—they revolve around availability, advocacy, and empathy. First is availability: failed givers are often willing to help anyone at any time. Successful givers set boundaries on who, when, and how 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 rearview 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.

What do givers do that drives you crazy?
Many givers are uncomfortable seeking and receiving help. They prefer to be on the giving end of exchanges, and fear that if they ask and receive, they'll feel (or appear) like takers. I've tried to debunk those fears for two reasons. First, if we never ask for help, we actually prevent those around us from acting like givers—they never know what we need or how they can contribute. Second, there's a major difference between taking and receiving. Taking means being unwilling to give back; receiving means accepting that we can't always succeed on our own, and maintaining a readiness to help when we can.

You mention a subset of givers called "other-ish givers." What's special about them?
It turns out that there are two types of givers: selfless givers and otherish givers. Selfless givers are those who always put other people's interests ahead of their own, which frequently results in getting burned or burning out. Otherish givers are people who look to help others in ways that aren't personally costly, or are even personally beneficial. There's a wonderful study of "Caring Canadians" who won their country's highest award for humanitarian service. They found ways to integrate doing well and doing good, which is a powerful example of being otherish: they directed their personal ambitions toward goals that would also benefit others. Although these otherish givers may be less altruistic than selfless givers, they are actually able to give more, because they give in ways that sustain their energy and resources.

Isn't an other-ish giver just a matcher in disguise?
No—matchers are people who expect something back from everyone they help, and are bothered if they give more than they get. Otherish givers help plenty of people without any strings attached, and are quite comfortable giving more than they get; they simply make sure that they don't give at the expense of their own success or well-being.

Couldn't someone act like a giver, knowing that it will later come back to benefit him? And wouldn't that make him a matcher?
I would say probably. It ultimately depends on the person's expectations in specific interactions. A pure matcher would keep track of credits and debits in every interaction, expecting quid pro quo for favors done. If the person holds the general belief that what goes around comes around, but enjoys contributing to people without expecting anything in return, that person falls closer to the giving end of the spectrum than matching.

Are you tracking giver/taker/matcher patterns in other countries or in parts of our country?
I've just started gathering data on give and take patterns by industry, so stay tuned. From a geographic perspective, it's challenging to draw valid, reliable conclusions across large groups of people. With that caveat aside, there's a terrific study of values by Evert Van de Vliert and colleagues. They find that taker values are more pronounced—and giver values more rare—in cultures that face the unfortunate combination of extreme weather conditions and scarce resources. In extremely hot and cold climates, people lean toward taking under scarcity but giving under abundance. An extreme climate makes it more difficult to maintain comfort, nutrition, and health. Under these conditions, if the society is poor, people often resort to an "every man for himself" mindset. Also, Shalom Schwartz and his colleagues have been studying cross-national differences in giver and taker values for more than three decades. They find trends, for example, that giver values are especially widespread in Western European countries like Spain and Belgium, and less common in Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Macedonia. That said, countries differ more in who people want to help than in whether they want to help. In most countries, giver values top taker values. Where countries diverge is in whether they have guiding principles about helping outgroups, not only ingroups.

Did you notice a difference in the number of male givers vs female givers?
Research by Alice Eagly suggests that men and women are equally helpful, but tend to help in different ways. Women do more giving in close relationships, with friends and family members. Men do more giving toward strangers, and in public and high-risk settings.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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