Matchers, Takers and Givers
In our private lives, most of us are “Givers”. Friends, family and other small community members are “there for each other” and help whenever the cost to them is less than the benefit to others, without expecting anything in return. In our professional lives, however, we tend to be “Matchers”, i.e., expect reciprocity and fairness (exchange or equal value). Except for "Takers", whose guiding principle is to use others for their sole benefit.
How Givers Benefit Organizations
According to Adam Grant, the best leaders and employees are often Givers. While Takers are solely motivated by their self-interest and Matchers condition their help to the reception of equal benefits, Givers have a “quiet” and “extended” self and are mainly driven by the desire to see their group succeed. As a consequence:
1) They are natural collaborators. Because they do not think of themselves as better than others, they are generous with their time and abilities and know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
2) They have strong social-emotional skills. Because their generosity stems from empathy, Givers are able to truly understand others and bridge the perspective gap.
3) They create an empowering climate of psychological safety. Confident that their interlocutor is animated by a desire for the common good, people are more likely to share creative ideas and take risks.
4) They accumulate leadership capital. Although they do not seek power as Takers do, Givers often rise to positions of responsibility because their good nature earns them “idiosyncrasy credit”, i.e., trust and reputation. People feel more comfortable seeing Givers in power. What is more, once they reach the top, Givers have more influence: other people are receptive to their feedback and disruptive ideas, which they know are not self-serving.
5) They are effective leaders. Adam Grant explains that psychological research has found that people make better decisions when they make them on behalf of other people. This is indeed a common exercise to defeat dysfunctional thinking in psychotherapy. The reason is that cognitive biases stem from ego-involvement. Givers, then, are naturally more careful and objective in their judgments. Humble, a growth mindset is also their default, so that they actively seek input, feedback, and continuous improvement. When needed, they do not hesitate to change course and admit their mistakes.
6) They are great mentors. While Takers and Matchers have little interest in poor performers and try to identify who has talent, Givers wonder what talent each person has and how it can be nurtured. They are great at finding “diamonds in the rough” and thus undervalued potential, because they assume potential in everyone and are willing to invest in others early. This positive assumption also generates virtuous cycles, such as the Pygmalion Effect.
7) They develop extensive and enduring networks. Giving leads people to make more and more meaningful connections with others than matching and taking. The latter only focus on those that could be useful in the foreseeable future. Yet, there is no telling who might be a great contact and resource many years from now (especially for someone else we will want to help then but don't know yet). Takers can develop quite large networks out of sheer interest, but theirs are not sustainable. Since they only build connections to gain favors, without ever returning them, Takers are eventually subject to a “tax” (a “bad rep”) shunning them out of productive human interactions. Givers, to the contrary, have an easy time reactivating “dormant ties”. Sociologists have observed that social networks are the most useful at the periphery. Towards the center, strong ties connect us to people who are close and likely quite similar to us. This means that they do not hold access to much (resources, knowledge, connections) that isn’t already available to us. Weaker, more distant ties have much more value in this respect. Such is the case of those that have become “dormant”. Matchers and Takers have a hard time reactivating such connections, but Givers do not, as they are known to use their connections to help others, and often created them through generosity in the first place.
8) They turn Matchers and Takers into Givers. As demonstrated by studies on Game Theory, most people would prefer for everybody to act as Givers, but do not do it themselves to avoid the “sucker effect”, because they anticipate that others will not either. The introduction of Givers in a group breaks these vicious cycles where members limit their help to tit-for-tat scenarios or, worse, loot and retaliate against each other. Giving is contagious, so that Givers organically develop in others the same benefits they bring to their organizations, thus creating “Pay-It-Forward” cultures where help is available everywhere.
9) They help build strong communities. Contrary to the matching paradigm, where favors are expected to be returned, the giving paradigm operates on the assumption that those who benefit from favors will “give back” to others. Not necessarily as much or to the same person, but however they can, as needs arise. The guiding principle, here, is the socialist maxim: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. One of its main benefits is to create a strong and self-reinforcing sense of belonging among the members of such giving circles.
10) They are skilled communicators. Givers have a “powerless” style which, counter to intuition, is actually more effective than Takers’ "powerful" communication. This characteristic can also help identify Givers among other people.
How To Spot a Giver… and a Faker
Whether someone is a Matcher, a Taker, or a Giver can really only be known by observing their behavior over time. When hiring, organizations have very limited information on such demonstrated preferences, however. For the most part, all they have access to is self-reported data. This makes it critical to ask references about candidates’ interpersonal style, and to make sure that these references include colleagues and/or supervisees as well as supervisors. The reason is that Takers tend to have what Theodor Adorno called an “F-personality” and be subservient to those of higher-status people but hostile towards those with lower status than them. More generally, because of the tax Taking is subject to in collaborative settings, Takers routinely pretend to be Givers to advance their interests. So, how do you spot a Faker from a true Giver?
Without access to people’s actual behavior over time, we must use a proxy: their communication style. Takers might present themselves as Givers, but true Givers would not. Self-promotion and all that it entails (putting oneself front and center, speaking in a self-absorbed and manipulative way) are the sure signs of a Faker. Just like asking the right people (colleagues and supervisees) the right questions, checking people’s online presence can help collect useful information here. Fakers tend to rack up “friends” and “followers”, post self-serving material, and display the “powerful” style that is characteristic of Takers.
This style is exactly what enables Takers to advance in their careers despite their nocive effects on organizations. Intuitively, it seems like good communicators are strong communicators: they are confident and authoritative, speak clearly and loudly, use assertive language and corresponding non-verbals. This might be impressive, especially during a job interview and in other one-off, artificial contexts (speeches, etc.) where one is meant to take center stage for a set amount of time. Yet, not only is powerful communication a warning sign of a potential Taker: it is also less effective than “powerless communication”, according to Adam Grant.
Powerless communication, the natural style of Givers, places the focus on the interlocutor. It involves humility (expression of uncertainty), openness (asking questions), vulnerability (seeking advice), and authentic listening. Powerful communication might transmit a message more strongly, but in collaborative settings its impact on conviction and behavior is much weaker. Precisely because it is so powerful, people tend to resist it with equal force, both out of reactance (our desire not to be bossed around) and skepticism about the person’s true intentions. To the contrary, powerless communication puts people at ease, making them more receptive and likely to be persuaded.
Selfish and Otherish Givers
Thanks to their powerless communication style, Givers are skilled negotiators. Yet, warns Adam Grant, Givers are not necessarily all beneficial to their organizations. There is such a thing as too much, or rather misplaced and unsustainable generosity. So, how do you tell an effective from an ineffective Giver?
Givers can be ineffective for two reasons: they might “burn out”, or simply fall prey to the “Doormat Effect” and be taken advantage of. These risks exist for “Selfless Givers”, who pursue other people’s interests and sacrifice their own. According to the author of Give and Take, both are not mutually exclusive, however, because they do not lie on the same continuum. Rather, they form two different axes, so that people can be apathetic (pursuing neither their own, nor other people’s interest), selfish, selfless, but also “otherish” (pursuing both at the same time). To use Grant’s metaphor, Otherish Givers want to grow the pie for everybody, but they also want to sit at the table.
Concretely speaking, an effective Giver will avoid burnout, not necessarily by reducing their generosity, but by making its impact (benefits to others) clearly visible (to themselves), and thus constantly remotivating. Likewise, to avoid self-defeating empathy they will adopt “generous tit-for-tat” strategies with Takers, i.e., force themselves to behave like Matchers most of the time, only extending their generosity on certain occasions that have the potential to benefit non-Takers and/or entice the latter to become more cooperative. Another way Otherish Givers avoid becoming the victims (and their organizations with them) of their generosity is the “relational account” strategy, where they picture themselves as acting on behalf of other people whose interests they care deeply about (family members, teammates, etc.).
Give and Take, by Adam Grant, has important implications for organizations looking to hire great people. Having distinguished “Givers” from “Matchers” and “Takers”, Grant explains all the different ways in which the former can generate success for themselves and those around them. What is more, this book also clarifies how to tell and protect Givers from “Fakers”... and from themselves. As such, Give and Take is useful, not only in a hiring context (the angle we chose here), but also for professional development purposes. Indeed, the main message of the book is that our usual conception of success is erroneous. While we tend to assume that “good people finish last” and that one cannot get ahead without stepping over others, Grant shows with many examples ranging from pop-culture to History and scientific research that Givers can rise to the top as they increase collective performance.
Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Penguin Books.