Givers Finish Last … And First


Are you a giver or a taker? Or perhaps a matcher who operates on the principle of reciprocity? Most of us might respond, “it depends.” In relational settings like family and community we would like to be the thought of as a giver. Though upon careful reflection and some honest feedback we might discover even among loved ones we are, at best, a matcher.  But perhaps in the more competitive areas of our life, like work, we would be more comfortable being labeled a matcher or even a taker.  In those competitive environments we probably feel that being a giver puts us at a disadvantage.  Adam Grant in Give and Take both confirms and disputes that being a giver proves that nice guys finish last.


In his research, givers tend to show up at both the top and the bottom of the achievement list. While takers would seem to have an advantage and they often do in the short term, they place a lid on their achievement potential by limiting the contribution of others to their cause. Initially, takers with a sufficient level of “people smarts” effectively manipulate everyone around them but there is a lurking danger that others (even the givers) will grow weary of the one way relationship.  It is often at the point when the taker most needs the support of others, he may find it lacking. Takers are more prone to operate from the assumption that others are working against them.  (Grant introduces the term “pronoia -as opposed to paranoia – to capture that givers assume others are secretly working to help them be more successful.)


Matching would seem to be an effective choice.  You don’t alienate others and you also don’t over invest.  Relationships maintain a nice status quo.  You might not feel particularly great about yourself but there are always those “takers” who you can look down on to elevate yourself. While taking might reflect our truest human nature, matching is probably the more comfortable style.   Matching does provide some mutual benefits.  However, you will probably end up producing good but not great results and having good but probably not great relationships.


So, why does giving end up at both ends of the achievement scale?  According to Grant, givers can fall into two categories: givers with low interest in self and high interest in others and givers with a high interest in self and in others.  While selfless giving is the most noble, it turns out not to be as strategic or sustainable.  The selfless givers at some point run into the reality that they do not have limitless resources.  Helping everyone who asks can reduce their individual productivity and limit the impact. Additionally, undisciplined giving can result in no time for personal renewal.


Grant makes the point that “self interest” and “others interest” are not opposite ends of the spectrum but rather are completely independent motivations.  I can be both interested in helping others and doing good for me. Much depends on my motivation for advancing my cause. Is it more about getting further ahead or giving more back? Givers are often most assertive when advocating for others.  Taking time to rest and replenish allows the giver to avoid burnout or donor fatigue. Intelligently deciding where to invest giving leads to greater impact which creates greater encouragement for even more giving.


Whether leaders give, take or match directly impacts the environment they create.  The zero sum approach of takers creates an environment of winners and losers.  If competition trumps collaboration, leaders may be well served to use a taking style. 


Because matchers must see how others are going to respond, they may be more tentative in their leadership actions. They end up being more selective in who and how they invest in others. The quid pro quo approach provides a level of certainty in their actions but only produces a measured level of engagement across the team. 


Givers create an environment where people want and can give their best.  In general, givers believe everyone has potential and naturally create a psychologically safe space.  They do this innately through seeing the needs of those they lead and responding with humility.  The greatest benefit occurs when giving becomes the group norm.  We may not all be natural givers but become greatly influenced by a consistent display of co-workers who put the interests of others ahead of themselves.