September 2013 | 

Give and Take Reveals the Transformative Power of Helping Others


Historically, success was dependent on talent, hard work, passion, and luck … but today it’s increasingly dependent upon collaboration. That’s especially significant considering that half of all European and U.S. companies rely on teams to get work done. In a collaborative environment, do those traditional drivers of success still work?

That’s the question organizational psychologist and Wharton Professor of Management Adam Grant explores in his new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. As Wharton’s youngest tenured professor and highest-rated teacher looks to determine why some rise to the top and others sink to the bottom, he identifies three preferences for professional interactions: givers, takers, and matchers. Which orientation, he asks, ultimately leads to the greatest success?

Givers are that rare breed of individuals who contribute to others without expecting anything in return, whereas takers act out of self interest, always looking to come out ahead. Most people fall into the third category, matchers — individuals governed by even exchanges of favors. In striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting, matchers often unwittingly limit themselves to smaller networks.

Givers, Grant says, are inordinately represented on both spectrums of success — either on the margins of poor performance or the pinnacles of achievement. When givers succeed, it “spreads and cascades,” notes Grant. When takers win, “There’s usually someone else who loses.” But people whose natural inclination is to help others often hesitate to show that side of themselves out of fear of being judged weak or naïve.

In Give and Take, Grant offers insights and advice for understanding the benefits of giving compared to the costs, and how to manage giving styles to prevent burn-out or becoming “pushovers or doormats.”

Throughout the book, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, he shares his research findings and stories of real-life givers and takers. Noteworthy givers include Abraham Lincoln, who acted for the greater good throughout his career — first as a struggling prairie lawyer and later as the 14th President of the United States. When he was elected in 1860 he put three political rivals in his Cabinet, telling a reporter, “I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Another giver is Adam Rifkin, the “world’s most influential networker” according to Fortune magazine. The unassuming Silicon Valley software developer built his network slowly through “small gestures and acts of kindness.” He serves as a watchdog for a wide range of online communities and helps connect engineers and entrepreneurs with businesspeople in larger companies.

Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, the Houston-based energy, commodities, and security firm that went bankrupt in December 2001, is described as a classic “taker in a giver’s clothes.” A master networker who secured the trust of U.S. presidents and other influential people through favors and charitable contributions, Lay pocketed corporate profits and treated subordinates poorly, asking them to compromise their integrity to promote his own agenda. Enron’s demise left 20,000 employees jobless, most losing their life savings, as a result of the firm’s leaders reporting false profits and hiding debts of more than $1 billion.

Grant delves into the differences between successful and failed givers — cautioning against selfless giving that can lead to losing sight of one’s own interests. Ideally, he reveals, integrate concern for others with a healthy dose of concern for the self to avoid burning out or getting burned.

Similarly, he advises matchers to give in ways they find enjoyable — such as focusing on recipients whose well-being matters to them. Grant stresses that adopting giver values, even slightly, can lead to greater success and lives that have richer meaning and more lasting impact. It turns out that helping others is the key to achieving extraordinary results, in work and in life.

To read more about Adam Grant and his book, please visit www.adamgrant.net/give-and-take.

Grant teaches in several Executive Education programs, including the Advanced Management Program, Executive Development Program, and High-Potential Leaders: Accelerating Your Impact.