Book Review - Give and Take

March 22, 2016
Book Reviews

When Daniel Pink calls a book "truly exhilarating," one would be wise to take the time to read it.  Adam Grant's bestseller Give and Take deserves Pink's accolade and more.

In Give and Take, Adam Grant, one of the most popular professors at Wharton School of Business, offers an extensive - but extraordinarily readable - examination of the impact of three fundamental styles of social interaction as predictors of business success.  In other words, Grant draws on the results of more than 100 different controlled studies to answer the question, “Do Givers really Gain?”  The answer may be surprising to some.  The answer is “Yes… sometimes.”


One of the fundamental premises of Give and Take is that more than 30 years of social science studies have led to the conclusion that all people fall into one of three approaches to reciprocity - their ideal blend of taking and giving:  takers, givers, and matchers.

Takers prefer to get more than they give.  Reciprocity is tilted in their own favor.  They are fundamentally self-focused.
Givers prefer to give more than they get.  Reciprocity is tilted in the favor of others.  They are fundamentally other-focused.
Matchers prefer to maintain an equal balance of giving and getting.  Reciprocity rests in equipoise between the favor of themselves and that of others.  They are fundamentally focused on even exchanges of value.

Although in real life, people are typically a varied mixture of these three approaches depending on the specific situation, “the vast majority of people develop a primary reciprocity style, which captures how they approach most of the people most of the time.”  According to Grant, “this primary style can play as much of a role in our success as hard work, talent, and luck.”

As mentioned above, Grant begins his analysis with a question: “Which reciprocity style is most likely to end up at the bottom of the business ladder of success - takers, matchers, or givers?”  Depending upon your own reciprocity bias, you may be surprised to hear that givers are more likely to end up at the bottom.  Grant moves on to a second question building upon the first:  “If givers live at the bottom of the ladder, who resides at the top of that ladder, takers or matchers?”  Grant’s surprising answer based upon the same studies is “Neither.  Once again, it’s the givers.”  This apparent inconsistency is the driving focus of the remaining analysis as Grant attempts to answer how givers can be the most likely to succeed and the least likely to succeed at the same time.

To reach his conclusion, Grant examines the relative levels of success for givers, matchers, and takers in four fundamental aspects of business: building networks, engaging in effective collaboration with others, developing others to achieve their potential, and influencing others through effective communication.  In each of these aspects, studies reveal that givers “climb to the top of the success ladder through the unique ways” in which they perform these steps.  If life in general - and business life in particular - were to stop at this point, the absolute assertion “Givers Gain” would be true and givers would always be most likely to ascend to the top of the ladder of success.  But life is complicated.

“Success involves more than just capitalizing on the strength of giving; it also requires avoiding the pitfalls.”

These pitfalls - and the failure to avoid them - result in many givers falling to the bottom of the ladder, exhausted, unproductive, and ultimately unsuccessful.  Grant devotes the final section of Give and Take to helping us understand what strategies differentiate the successful givers from the failed givers.  In brief, givers need to avoid burning out and protect themselves from being exploited by takers.  

Grant points to both studies and individual examples to show that givers can avoid the debilitating impact of burnout by rejecting the temptation to be selfless.  The positive contrast to being self-ish is not to be selfless, but rather to be other-ish. “If takers are selfish, and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish:  they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.” Self interest and other interest are not opposite ends of a single continuum. What Grant labels “other-ish givers” are typically high in both other-interest and self-interest.  Studies show that selfless givers are typically high in other-interest and low in self-interest. “Selfless giving is a form of pathological altruism … an unhealthy focus on others to the detriments of one’s own needs.”  

In addition, givers need to protect themselves from becoming doormats and pushovers for takers.  Givers are typically marked by a higher level of trust in others than the level held by both matchers and takers.  Successful givers develop the skills of “sincerity screening” to become more aware of the takers looking to take advantage of their level of trust and willingness to give.

Givers do in fact gain.  And when givers don’t gain, it is not the fault of the commitment to giving; rather the source of the failure can be found in the failure to protect oneself from the burnout from within and the trampling from others. It was not an accident that Give and Take was named one of the best books of the year by Amazon, Apple, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Fortune, Forbes, and the Washington Post.  If you only have the time to read one business book this year, choose this one. Later, you will congratulate yourself on your wisdom. And those around you will appreciate your decision as well.

Randy Merritt

Randy Merritt has practiced law for nearly twenty years in Los Angeles and now in Elk Grove.  Always searching for new opportunities to learn, Randy spends much of his free time reading about a  broad variety of subjects, including history, communication, public policy, and anything written by Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.  When he isn't reading, writing, or spending time with his family, Randy enjoys another of his passions - baseball.  Click on the picture for more information about Randy.

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