Will Being a Giver Make You Successful?

Adam Grant in his book Give and Take:  a Revolutionary Approach to Success argues that a Giver – a person who likes to help others – can be successful or not depending on how highly s/he value their own interests in addition to their generosity to others.  He argues that self-interest and other-interest (being generous and helpful to others) are not mutually exclusive but are completely independent motivations.  Successful people have high degrees of self-interest AND other-interest.

Adam categorizes people into three (3) categories:  Givers, Takers, and Matchers.

  • Takers – score high in self-interest and low in considering the interest of others.  Takers like to receive more than they give.  They put their own needs ahead of the needs of others – it’s a dog-eat-dog world.  Takers help others only when the benefit to themselves outweighs the costs to themselves.
  • Matchers  — seek to have an equal balance of giving and getting.  Matchers value fairness and equivalent reciprocity – tit for tat – they grant favors with an expectation that a return favor will be granted to them:  “I’ll do something for you, if you do something for me.”
  • Givers – always score high on other-interest but may score either high or low on self-interest.  Givers give more than they get.  Givers tend to be generous in sharing their time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas and connections with others who might benefit from them.  Selfless Givers are doormats; successful Givers are otherish – they care about others but also are ambitious and want to advance their own interests.

When Adam explored who was not successful, as one would expect, it was Givers – and in particular, selfless Givers.  Selfless Givers make others better off and sacrifice their own success.  But when he looked at who was most successful, it was a Givers again – Matchers and Takers tended to be in the middle of the pack.  Of course there are Takers and Matchers that are successful, but Adam presents a strong a case that Givers who are also interested in their own careers are successful.   He reports:

[highly successful givers] had roughly 20 percent more objectives related to gaining influence, earning recognition, and attaining individual excellence. The successful Givers weren’t just more other-oriented than their peers; they were also more self-interested.  Successful Givers, it turns out, are just as ambitious as takers and matchers.

Adam tells of remarkably successful Givers – people who were generous with their time and support for others and also reached the top of their fields.  He recounts stories of small favors or favors given through remote connections that turned out to lead to significant relationships years later.   It’s almost as if you don’t know who you will run into later in life so it is best to be generous to everyone.

Adam discusses a number of areas in which Givers differ from Takers or Matchers.  Three, in particular, intrigued me:  sharing credit, powerless communication, and asking for advice.

Sharing Credit

One area that separates Givers from Matchers or Takers is sharing credit for success.  Sharing credit, and like sharing information, varies by type – Givers naturally tend to share information and credit, Matchers share credit or information if others do, and Taker tends not to share information or credit.  Adam offers explanations as to why people in general don’t share credit:

  • The responsibility bias– people overestimate their own contributions compared to others
  • The information discrepancy – people have more access to their own efforts and contributions than the contributions of others

John Kotter has written about the importance of lateral relationships for the success of projects.  It is easy to see why Givers would be more successful if a project requires the cooperation of others over whom one has no formal authority.  Givers share information and credit and build relationships and networks that invite cooperation and collaboration much more so than Takers or Matchers.

Powerless Communication

Adam describes powerless communication as speaking less assertively, expressing doubt and vulnerability, and relying heavily on the advice of others and provides fascinating anecdotes as examples.  Adam notes that there are two fundamental paths to influence:  dominance and prestige.  He describes how people gain dominance through typical powerful communication – both verbally and nonverbally – they speak quickly, authoritatively and project confidence and take up as much physical space as possible.  Takers tend to be better at gaining dominance than Givers.

But Adam argues that using prestige – offering respect and admiration – is a more effective way to gain and exert influence.  While power is a zero-sum game, there is not a limit to respect and admiration.   Asking questions, respecting others’ input and contributions and revealing weaknesses enhances influence instead of decreasing it.  Powerless communication increases collaboration and information sharing.  Adam reports that asking questions work especially well in negotiations:  expert negotiators spent much more time trying to understand the other side’s perspective than asserting their position.

In any particular moment, powerless communication may be less effective; but in the long run, powerless communication leads to greater influence and success.

Asking for Advice

Asking for advice is one form of powerless communication that is a remarkably successful strategy for encouraging cooperation and gaining influence.  “Studies demonstrate that across manufacturing, financial services, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries, seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates.   Advice seeking tends to be significantly more persuasive than the Takers preferred tactics of pressuring subordinates and ingratiating superiors.  Advice seeking is also consistently more influential than the Matchers default approach of trading favors.”  But seeking advice is only effective if it is genuine – those of whom advice was sought could spot fakers.

Advice seeking is more comfortable for Givers: Givers ask advice because they are genuinely interested in learning about others.  Takers assume that the best approach is ingratiation and flattery.  Adam relates research that shows that flattery only worked when coupled with advice seeking.  Adam’s book seems to be consistent with Jeffrey Pfeffer‘s advice to ask for things as a means to gain influence but at odds with Pfeffer’s assertion that flattery is an effective form of gaining influence.

Generous Tit-for-Tat

I really liked the discussion of the success of the “generous tit for tat” strategy — “never forget a good turn, but occasionally forgive a bad one.”

You start out cooperating and continue cooperating until your counterpart competes.  When your counterpart competes, instead of always responding competitively, generous tit for tat usually means competing two thirds of the time, acting cooperatively in response to one of ever three defections.

Perhaps I liked this approach because when I took Adam’s self-assessment on his website, my score was 60% Giver (higher than others in my state, industry, or age group), and 7% Taker (lower than other in my state, industry or age group) that the generous tit for tat approach resonates with me as a good strategy.  Or perhaps it is because I hope others will forgive one the times when I was not at my best.  Or perhaps it is because I have an underlying faith that most people will eventually redeem themselves if they have the opportunity.  Whatever the reason, I wholeheartedly support the generous tit for tat approach – be generous to others; don’t be a doormat; and once in a while, give someone a break because maybe they were having a bad day.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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4 thoughts on “Will Being a Giver Make You Successful?

  1. I frequent networking meetings in the Dallas, TX area, and one thing that networking leaders emphasize is taking the time to build trust. A taker is not easy to trust, and they are not interested in spending the time to build trust. Adam Grant said in another interview that takers tend to have broad but shallow networks. Givers (or those who are “otherish”, as he called them) tend to have large networks, but for wholly different reasons.

    I find too that some of the most appreciated networkers are those who always seem to have a good business lead for someone else. If you take the time to help others, they will notice and remember it.

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